Outside the entrance to Park City City Hall stands a public sculpture titled Sheltering Aspen. With aluminum poles sprouting laser-cut plastic leaves, it celebrates the spectacular natural history that draws residents to this mountain town.
The abstract metallic artwork also could be a metaphor for the relentless real-estate development that has supplanted Summit County’s once-aspen and oak-covered mountain sides with condominiums, clear-cut ski slopes, hotels, up-scale restaurants, shopping malls, spas, luxury homes—the accouterments of a modern resort town. By comparison, the visual impact of Park City’s silver-mining heritage is negligible.
But over the last year, tension between protecting what remains of Park City’s open space and mountain-town flavor and lucrative real-estate development has been mounting in a battle that could change the town forever. The “line in the sand,” in the words of one activist, is the long-roiling controversy over Treasure Hill.
‘A deal’s a deal.’
Understanding the agreements that led to the Treasure Hill battle would require a time machine. In the 1970s, the Sweeney family bought a chunk of property on the hillside that overlooks Old Town and includes Town Lift Mid-Station and Creole Gulch. In the late 1980s, they presented the city a proposal to develop the property. Opinion now is sharply divided over whether the city council approved the project as a cluster of residences, condos, maybe a small hotel—or as a massive resort hotel on the scale of Montage. Included in the deal was 110 acres to be protected as open space. But the approved plan lacked detail and included problematic text, such as “Final unit configuration and mix may be adjusted by future developers … .”
Then, negotiations for the project’s final permitting stalled for 20 years, on bureaucratic life support with only enough contact between the owners and the city to keep it breathing.
In 2004, the proposal was resuscitated and updated. That round of meetings climaxed in 2010 with the city trying to negotiate a buyout. When the developers demanded $93 million, the city balked and the process went into a zombie state again, until spring 2016, when the Sweeneys, with New York-based development partner Park City II, LLC, came back with a detailed proposal that includes a hotel—a very big hotel.
Pat Sweeney, the point man for the family, argues the city council gave the project green lights at least twice. “A deal’s a deal,” he says. “We made commitments forever, not just then— and not maybe. The city should live up to its agreements.” Hypocrisy is at the root of the controversy, Sweeney says. “[Other developers] used their property to the full extent. Now, they want to stop us from using our property. They got their piece and decided it’s time to stop. You can’t stop the world from spinning. You don’t get to stand still.”
The law would seem to back the Sweeneys. Utah’s Supreme Court has held that modifying approvals because city councils and zoning boards change would cause “calamitous expense” to developers. A legal advisor to the city explained, “I conclude that Sweeney has continuing vested rights…” from the 1986 approval.
Once and future Park City
But residents opposing the project argue it’s not that simple. Ann MacQuoid, a member of the 1986 city council that approved the project, says a massive hotel was never envisioned by the council. The council approved 413,000 square feet of residential development with some additional commercial space that MacQuoid argues was meant only for the development’s residents, not competition for Main Street.
But Sweeney says the record is clear. “We are not making up the ‘book.’ We are reading from their book—the master-plan approval. They keep reading into it things that aren’t there.”
MacQuoid maintains the council would not have approved a massive project above Old Town. “There was nothing cavalier or light-hearted about granting permits or changing zoning. The stated purpose was for clustered development, 100-percent residential—not a hotel.”
Says Sweeney: “That’s just made up. It’s a misrepresentation.”
And the 1986 approval, indeed, mentions a “hotel-type development,” but offers little detail on what form that might take. MacQuoid says the 1986 council would have been thinking in terms of a modest-sized hotel like Stein Eriksen Lodge, if anything.
But property costs have increased 10-fold and Treasure’s need for return on its investment and the millions spent to maintain approval through the years, is driving the project beyond anything the 1986 council could have imagined. More than 400,000 square feet has grown to more than 1 million square feet—including 200 hotel rooms, 100 condominiums and a conference space. “This is not remotely what was approved in 1986,” MacQuoid says.
“This project was extremely well-thought out,” Sweeney says. It only grew after adding “necessary components” of a modern resort, he says.
Just say, No.
Charles Stormont, a lawyer for Treasure Hill Impact Neighborhood Coalition (THINC), says the problem for both sides in the dispute is the vagueness of the city council’s original approval and the evolution of Park City’s view of itself. “What was approved and theoretically possible in the mid-80s, is just not possible in 2016, considering the way Park City has changed in the last 30 years.”
THINC’s founder Brian Van Hecke says, “Our hope and vision is to forever protect that landmark space as open space.” But realistically, the best strategy appears to be to curb the project’s massive scale towering above Old Town.
“The scope is far beyond anything that was ever agreed to,” says Van Hecke. “We are not opposed to development, but this is completely out of scale. They have shown no respect for our community and the quality of life.”
Park City-based architect and THINC member Steven Swanson agrees, “If it can’t be stopped—at least they can abide by the scale laid out in the original agreement.”
Sweeney counters that PC’s quaint-ski-town days have long passed. “Park City is not a little ski town—it’s a city. It’s not a wilderness. It’s not a national park or a national forest.”
Sweeney says if residents are so concerned about the impact on the quality of life, “Buy it, for gosh sakes! The city has never made us an offer.” But even he acknowledges, “They probably can’t afford it, now.”
An inevitable ending?
Park City Senior Planner Francisco Astorga, who is assiduously keeping the debate on the Treasure development open to the public, is one of the few people who is remaining philosophical—if not particularly optimistic—about the outcome. He says the city council, which has obvious conflicts in settling an appeal, has set up a three-member board to decide the inevitable appeal of the Planning Department’s decision. If either side finds the appeal board wanting, they have the option of taking it to court.
“No matter what recommendation we make, it will wind up in 3rd District Court,” he says.
Sweeney agrees. “I think court is the likely thing.”
Read more about the Treasure Hill Controversy here.
Architectural renderings courtesy of Treasure Park City.