PROVO — The Utah County Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve a plan to transfer ownership of land to a nonprofit land trust conservation association and grant a conservation easement to preserve Bridal Veil Falls from future development.
The vote put an to end to weeks of public discussion about the future of the popular natural landmark as a plan to construct an aerial tram and private business lodge surfaced.
A group of individuals that attended Wednesday's meeting in person erupted in applause after the commissioners passed the measure.
The organization Utah Open Lands will receive the deed to the land as a part of the approved plan and then receive an easement, which bars any future discussion of business or housing development by the waterfall. Wendy Fisher, the organization's executive director, said its board of directors will meet on Tuesday to go over the deal and vote on it before it is finalized and recorded by the county.
Should the board reject adjustments by the county made during the meeting, a new agreement would have to be reapproved by the commission. That said, it didn't appear there are any major snags.
"I can't — at this point because I don't have my board together — approve the conservation easement but the board is firmly behind this. It's already approved the idea of placing a conservation easement and working with Utah County," she said.
The vote happened after a lengthy, passionate and — at times — heated five-hour meeting with testimony from dozens of residents and other individuals for and against future development of the land. The three county commissioners met to review a conservation easement measure or open future discussion of a development proposal brought forward by Cirque Lodge Drug and Alcohol Addiction Recovery founder Richard Losee, who was seeking to add a private addiction recovery lodge at the top of the falls and an aerial tram to it.
Losee offered to buy the land for as much as $2.5 million and return about 20 acres back to the county for conservation purposes, or $1 million for about 1 acre of land needed for the proposed project. There was a tram that existed near the waterfall from the 1960s through 1996, when it was destroyed by an avalanche.
Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee, who was a target of a few jabs from conservation advocates during the meeting for his monthslong communication with Losee, clarified during the meeting that Bridal Veil Falls was "not for sale." He likened Losee's offer to someone offering to buy a home that wasn't listed on the market.
Regardless, word of possible development sparked a reaction from leaders of various communities near Provo Canyon even before it was unveiled in some cases. American Fork, Cedar Hills, Orem and Provo city leaders all passed resolutions that sought for the commission to block development at Bridal Veil Falls. They insisted that the county issue a conservation easement for the land instead.
There was also a small protest against any development was also held Tuesday ahead of the commission meeting about the project.
A vast majority of the people who came to the meeting location, joined the meeting at a nearby overflow site or via video conference call, pleaded with the commission to preserve the land by the falls.
Those in favor of the easement said the land should not be privatized in any way. A few people who attended the meeting said Bridal Veil Falls was among the few waterfall viewing options for people with disabilities. Others argued the natural impacts of development or the costs if a tram and building had to be removed from the land like a previous tram did.
"It was created right the first time, ... Any addition is not an improvement. It's beautiful the way it is and should be kept that way,"
–Brigham Daniels, BYU professor
Those who testified in favor of the easement included Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi and Cedar Hills Mayor Jenney Rees.
"Overwhelmingly, the feedback I received is that citizens are opposed to what is being proposed by Mr. Losee," Rees said. "Utah County is growing rapidly and as part of our planning efforts, it is important to recognize that conserving open space is essential to the quality of life we enjoy."
Brigham Daniels, a professor of law at BYU who has expertise in environmental and property law, was also among those who opposed any form of development on the land.
"It was created right the first time," he told the commission. "Any addition is not an improvement. It's beautiful the way it is and should be kept that way,"
Attorney John Buckley represented Losee at the meeting, reading off a statement from the businessman. Losee pleaded with the commission to hold off from voting on an easement until he had an opportunity to present his proposal. On top of that, Buckley said he had "numerous" signatures of people who were in favor of a new aerial tramway and an observation deck at Bridal Veil Falls.
"Many injuries and even deaths have occurred from attempts to scale the rugged terrain surrounding the falls. With tram access, the public will be able to observe the falls safely," he said.
Some residents testified they were in favor of Losee's proposal — or at least elements of it. A few said they fondly remembered the previous tram and said it would be a welcomed enhancement to viewing the falls.
Buckley and attorney Bruce Baird also said they believed Losee's proposal was misconstrued by people opposed to the plan. But some pushed back against those notions. Norm Jones, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said he believed the general public was fully aware of what was proposed.
"We do understand it and we don't want it," he said. "Everybody I know (is) not only against this but passionately against it."
The entire public comment period lasted close to three hours with one 5-minute break in the middle. Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge broke the ice following a lengthy public comment period, immediately proposing that a conservation easement be placed on the land.
"I think we should move forward and place this in a conservation easement so that we can have the permanent preservation of Bridal Veil Falls for public use and enjoyment — and forever foreclose the possibility of private development on the falls and the adjacent property," he said.
Lee interjected with an idea to request to the Utah State Legislature that Bridal Veil Falls become a state monument, calling it "one of the higher marks we can go in the way of preservation." That sparked conversation between county leaders, including Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, about what would happen to the land should the 30-year-old Utah Open Lands cease to exist in the future.
Fisher pointed out that the state of Utah could qualify as an organization that could absorb ownership in the land if the nonprofit went out of business. She said it didn't appear that an easement would hinder future efforts of turning Bridal Veil Falls into a landmark either.
I really appreciate @IvieNathan's leadership on this final legacy project. The area is now permanently preserved for public use and enjoyment—forever foreclosing the possibility for private development on the falls— Tanner Ainge (@TannerAinge) December 10, 2020
+ $1.5m set aside for the trails, bridges, etc. https://t.co/bHRcdeYkHF
There were other measures involving Bridal Veil Falls that passed during the meeting.
Earlier in Wednesday's meeting, the commission passed an amended county capital improvement program to include $500,000 more in funding for the falls area in 2021. The motion also passed unanimously. The county already approved about $1 million for improvements for the area in 2020 but COVID-19 issues delayed the project until next year.
The commission also granted an easement to the Utah County Central Water Conservancy District during Wednesday's meeting. Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie explained that it will help the water agency move the point where they collect water from the waterfall into a location away from the site.