Developer threatens to cancel sale of open space near H-Rock to the city

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A deal between the city and an owner of 40 acres of current open space on the east bench may be falling apart. At risk is historic public access to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail (BST) and other trails near the H-Rock, as well as over 30 acres of open space that could be in public hands.

The Turville family owns 40 acres of foothills at the end of Lakeline Drive in the Arcadia Heights neighborhood, approximately 2950 East and 1820 South, and hopes to build three single-family homes and a private road on four acres of large lots ranging from 51,255 to 67,843 SF.

View to the north of the Carrigan Ct development sites. Courtesy SLC Planning.

It has applied for preliminary subdivision and planned development approval, and has been negotiating with various city departments in the run-up to the proposal reaching the Planning Commission last week, who are the final arbiters in the matter.

Portions of the three lots exceed a 30% slope, which is the maximum pitch allowable for development in city code. The homes’ current designs require an exception to that prohibition.  The city has decided to enforce it.

The planned development proposal and development agreement includes significant public benefits. They include the city gaining ownership of the trailhead and a .3 mile portion of the BST, plus portions of other trails in the area which currently reside on the Turville’s private property. Although the city has established an easement for its Public Services Department under the current BST alignment, no legal claim for access for the public currently exists, despite decades of public use by hikers.

The layout of the proposed planned development (in black) and sale of open space to Salt Lake City (blue). Image courtesy SLC Planning.

Adam Turville told the commission last week that the “whole delicate balance [of the deal] hinges on this vote and the few exceptions we are asking for.” 

“Without the exception, the subdivision as we’ve designed and engineered it falls apart.”

The deal, suddenly on the rocks, sees the owner foregoing development on large portions of buildable area on their 40 acres, and instead selling large swaths of open space to the city. If successful, it would pave the way for other, already-discussed land exchanges between Turville and the city’s Public Lands Department involving more than 22 acres, and potentially a new trailhead and parking lot.

New recommendation from planners, resistance from applicant

Last month Senior Planner Eric Daems recommended to the commission that they approve the planned development and subdivision, which included permission to build on parts of the lots that exceed 30% slope. But in the interim, the city revised its view. It endorsed all elements of the previous development agreement, save one–no permission to build on portions of the lots greater than 30%.

”The standards are intended to protect the integrity of the steep slopes and unique environment on the hillsides,” stated Daems to the commission,. 

Planning Director Nick Norris told the commission at last month’s meeting that the city is currently dealing with requests for steep-slope exceptions and that this decision would likely affect the city’s ability to be consistent in applying standards. 

Planners’ recommendation to deny the steep-slope exception came with an offer from planners to lift front- and side yard setback requirements for the planned development, which sits on FR-2 Foothills Residential zoning. 

The city, offering to eliminate front yard setbacks, is trying to push the site of the three single-family homes up the hill and away from the slopes greater than 30%. Image courtesy SLC Planning.

Those front setbacks were to be used for the homes’ driveways, Daems said. 

The front- and side yard setback reductions actually increase the buildable lot area on all three parcels between 3500 and 7500 SF. There remains “close to 16,000 SF of buildable area on each lot,” Daems noted.

Developer’s threats

That move did not appease Turville, who explained the driveways are important parts of the current design. Current site plans call for retaining walls and other engineering features, he said, that are sited on parts of the slope exceeding 30%. 

Areas in red exceed 30% slope pitch. Image courtesy Ensign Engineering.

Turville told the commission that If the steep-slope exception were not granted, his development team would be forced “to pivot to capturing some of the value that we would be giving up through the sale to Salt Lake City by not selling it to Salt Lake City by reverting back to either our original plan or a new subdivision plan that would be a full residential development of this.”

“We would redesign the subdivision and there would be homes and streets and pavement over the BST rather than the open space that we’re proposing right now.”

Would the city have a legal claim to public access based in the principle of prescriptive annexation or easement, asked commissioners, given that the public has been using the trail for >25 years? That possibility was sidelined by Planning Director Norris, who reminded the commission that that was an issue for the city’s legal team and not the purview of Planning.

In the face of threats from the petitioner to pull out of the deal, the Planning Commission didn’t blink. After taking public comment, commissioners approved the preliminary subdivision and planned development proposal in a unanimous 6-0 vote–without the steep-slope exception. 

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.