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County leaders citing ethics problems in UTA land deal

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By John DaleyDRAPER -- Salt Lake County leaders and open space advocates are crying foul about the proposed deal involving the Utah Transit Authority.

UTA is building a commuter rail line from here in Salt Lake to Provo, but some elected officials and others want to know just who is pushing for a key stop in Draper and why.

The land in question is so pristine lawmakers voted to permanently keep it open space. Now, UTA wants to swap the property for private land to build a new commuter rail stop, with sprawling development.

For years, preservationists tried to protect it through a conservation easement, a process that was halted. Then-House Speaker Greg Curtis visited the head of the agency overseeing the land. In this case, Curtis said he was there as a real estate attorney on behalf of a property owner who wanted to work out a trade.

"He was very specific in saying, 'I'm coming to you not as a speaker, but as an attorney representing my clients.' And we said, 'Fine. We're gonna call you Greg and not Mr. Speaker,'" said Mike Styler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Styler says he didn't feel pressured, and the deal fell through when Curtis' clients pulled out. Now Curtis is back on Capitol Hill as a paid contract lobbyist for UTA, which has been quietly trying to orchestrate a trade for the same land.

"It's not right for a speaker of the House to block a law made by the legislature he served nine years before. It's not appropriate. You can't take one hat off and put another one on if you're the speaker," said Ted Wilson, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

Questions are also emerging about developer Terry Diehl. He's also on the UTA Board of Directors. Some Salt Lake County Council members say they've been told Diehl has a financial stake in deal as well and are speaking out.

"You want to feel like a decision is made because it's the right decision, not because this is what some important people want, that this is what's best for everybody in the valley. So, I worry that there's a bit of a conflict of interest there," said councilman David Wilde.

Diehl was out of town and unavailable for comment Tuesday. UTA declined KSL's request for an interview, but confirmed that Diehl has disclosed a conflict on the deal, but did not say what the conflict is. In an e-mailed statement, the agency said Diehl abstained from voting on the swap. [Click here to read UTA's entire statement]

The issue came to a head Tuesday at a meeting of the Salt Lake County Council. The potential conflicts involving key players in the deal were mentioned as council members discussed whether to vote to oppose the deal and to instruct the county's legislative lobbyist to inform state lawmakers about their concerns.

An archaeologist told the council the land holds valuable and significant archaeological artifacts and structures dating back 3,000 years, which could re-write the history of ancient peoples who lived and settled on the site next to the Jordan River.

The County Council voted 7-2 to oppose the land swap. "I think we need to take a look at the value of these lands, sans any politics, sans anybody making money on the side, sans anybody using their public position -- wether it be a board position with the UTA or the speaker of the House or anybody else," said councilman Jim Bradley.

Open space advocates fear, if finalized, the deal would blow a huge hole in the effort to protect lands along the Jordan River, called Blueprint Jordan River.

A bill making its way through the legislature would open the door for the state to swap the land, more than 200 acres known as the Galena property, for an equal-sized parcel of private land.


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