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Controversial land deal has officials raising eyebrows



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The Salt Lake County Assessor and other public officials are sharply criticizing a lucrative land deal that closed last week. Over several months it's generated increased scrutiny, in part because it involved public money, a controversial parcel of land and a prominent lawmaker.

A central player in all this is House Speaker Greg Curtis, who never returned numerous calls and e-mails on this story. A key question is: Would this $2 million deal have happened without him?

About the time House Speaker Greg Curtis was set to start another session, lawyer Greg Curtis delivered to Salt Lake County an application to trade a 10-acre piece of land in Willow Canyon for an open space designation. The proposal was complicated, but in essence it would protect open space, preserve Bonneville Shoreline Trail access and compensate the property owner.

Lorna Vogt, the open space program manager in Salt Lake County, said, "It shows up high on all of our ratings in our acquisition plan. It's a good piece of property."

County council members were completely divided, including about the final $2.1 million price tag.

Council member Joe Hatch favored the deal. He said, "It has to be put into open space. It is just such a critical piece. And you just go there and look and say 'Do I want three mega-homes in this area?' And I think the answer has to be absolutely not."

Another council member, Jenny Wilson, who opposed the deal, said, "I think we paid far too much for this parcel, and I think it's unfortunate."

Appraisers gauged the land's value at between $1.7 million and $2.3 million. But the assessor's office figured it was never worth more than half a million dollars.

Salt Lake County assessor Lee Gardner says, "I think it's suspect."

In fact, property owner and developer Gary McDougal appealed earlier assessments. In 1999 he said it wasn't worth $55,000 because it was "landlocked from development," too steep, and had "earthquake faults."

In 2006, McDougal, who declined our interview requests, challenged a $269,000 assessment.

Gardner said, "It makes me question, two years ago the taxpayer comes in and beats up on me and says, 'Hey it's not worth $269,000,' for tax purposes. But two years later to go sell it, it's worth $2 million. Quite frankly, that's offensive."

Was there was another solution to protecting the trail while still satisfying the landowner? County council member Jim Bradley said, "Sandy could have provided an easement to the developer, allowed him to develop three or four homes and, in trade, open up the Shoreline Trail to the public. And not spend a dime of the public money."

We asked to speak with Sandy's mayor but were referred to his deputy, John Hiskey, who said, "It has been talked about. It has been talked about in negotiations, etc. It could never be resolved." Deputy to Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan

The lengthy logjam wasn't resolved until the developer hired lawmaker/lawyer Greg Curtis.

In curious timing, key Salt Lake County Council votes took place on the land deal just as Curtis and lawmakers weighed millions in state funding to the county and major issues like the future of the county's airport TRAX line.

We unearthed no direct link but the county got most of what it asked for from the legislature, and the council OK'd the $2 million deal for the developer Curtis represented, not to develop a property whose value was debatable. Hatch said, "I did not see any undue influence. No one called me up and said, ‘Joe, you gotta do this.'"

Bradley said, "I think probably people said, ‘Well, if the Speaker's involved with this, either he's a political ally, so we'll do, or we're afraid of what he'll do if we don't.'"

We wanted to ask Greg Curtis how much money he made on this land deal. Those familiar with similar open space deals suggest Curtis could have been paid anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on his agreement with the property owner. But, again, the House Speaker didn't return our calls.

If you want to see documents connected with this story, click on the related links at the right.

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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John Daley

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