Developer pursues land swap under Habitat Conservation Plan; OHV users argue to preserve Sand Mountain

File photo: Sand Mountain area of Sand Hollow, Hurricane, Utah, May 2014 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Bob Brennan is frustrated. As one of three landowners with property remaining in the Red Cliffs Reserve created by the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, he is seeking compensation for his land.

Red Cliffs Desert Reserve | Map courtesy of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County HCP, St. George News
Red Cliffs Desert Reserve | Map courtesy of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County HCP, St. George News | Click on map to enlarge

The reserve was created by the HCP to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise, and at the same time allow development to continue in any other tortoise habitat in the county. The county is under pressure to finish up acquisition and exchange transactions with owners of remaining privately-owned property subjected to the HCP, as a February 2016 deadline looms for renewal of the HCP.

Brennan acquired property in the Green Springs area of the reserve when loans he had previously made to James Doyle and Environmental Lands Technologies were settled in a 2010 bankruptcy with Brennan receiving title to about 800 acres. Since 2010, he and Jim Raines, a full-time land consultant for Brennan, have been working to identify Bureau of Land Management property in the county appropriate for exchange under the terms of the HCP.

The HCP states that landowners will be compensated, and allows for a private landowner to trade his land for BLM property of equal value. Thus far, six parcels of land in the county have been identified as possible exchange properties, although the process is in the early stages.

Sand Mountain property prospect

However, one of those parcels is 1,200 acres in the Sand Mountain OHV Area. The potential encroachment into the popular off-highway vehicle area has become highly controversial and is being opposed by off-road advocates including the Utah Public Lands Alliance and others. While the land exchange process is in the early stages, tempers are already flaring.

Read more: Land users angry about land swap, county may consider alternatives

Brennan said he is frustrated by recent statements made by off-road advocates.

“When they say ‘there are many other properties in the county that could be traded to Brennan,’ you can’t just make that statement without any facts,” Brennan said. “If they know where those properties are, we would love for them to tell us what they are. If they know other properties in the county for us to trade for, I would love to see them.”

A stake marks the border of land slated to be part of the proposed Sand Hollow land exchange, July 11, 2014 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News
A stake marks the border of land slated to be part of the proposed Sand Hollow land exchange, July 11, 2014 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

“We have analyzed all the land in the county. We not only looked in Washington County, but we looked throughout the rest of the state, and have found properties that only equal about half of Bob’s value,” Raines said. “We really don’t have any interest in taking 5,000 acres on the west desert that has no development potential whatsoever.”

Brennan said he is not attached to the Sand Hollow parcel, but needs to get compensated for the Green Springs land he cannot develop. He believes the only other option is to leave the Sand Hollow parcel alone, and get paid for the remaining value by Washington County.

While Brennan does not have his heart set on acquiring the Sand Hollow property, that particular property is quite valuable in terms of development potential, he said, and accounts for about 60 percent of the value he needs to be compensated for in exchange for his Green Springs property tied up under the HCP.

I don’t care about Sand Hollow. I could care less about owning that property. Have the ATV people talk to the county commissioners and put a tax or impact fee to get the money,” he said. “I’ll take this off (the table) today, I don’t care about this property,” Brennan said.

Without the Sand Hollow parcel, compensation can only happen through a tax or fee, Brennan said. This is not a popular option, he said, and may not even be possible even though he is willing to spread payments out over 15 to 20 years.

“I’m not even asking for the money now. I’m trying to resolve a problem,“ Brennan said.

What is the value?

At the heart of the issue is valuation – getting a fair exchange for the value of land rendered useless for development by its inclusion in the HCP. While Brennan will not disclose how much he has invested in the property, he said that his Green Springs acreage is worth “north of $110 million.” However, Brennan said, he is willing to take $24 million in land value or in cash, and that figure includes the Sand Hollow parcel.

Bob Sandberg, HCP Administrator, said any discussion of valuation and appraisals is premature. Six properties are being considered for land exchange with one or more of the property owners, he said.

This is still quite preliminary until BLM does their environmental assessment and determines which if any of their properties that they will trade,” Sandberg said. BLM’s role in the process is to take the lead in completing exchanges, he said.

“Once they get to that point, then we have to go back and look at both the properties, and the way BLM’s regulation reads ‘they have to trade at appraised value,’” Sandberg said. At that point, the BLM will have to do appraisals, and make the agreement with the private landowners remaining under the HCP.

Appraisals on Brennan’s land have been done in the past, but Brennan did not provide that information. He said the previous appraisals were commissioned by the federal government related to a separate land transaction, and he does not have the right to release them.

“The old appraisals are irrelevant to any land exchange since new appraisals will be required for any exchange and the exchange process will be open to public review,” Raines said.

“All I’m saying is that I’m willing to negotiate, I’m willing to donate a bunch of property, I’m willing to work with people in any way possible but I’m not going to get thrown under the bus and not get this resolved,” Brennan said.

Development concept

If Brennan does acquire the Sand Hollow property, he plans a low density, environmentally sensitive development, with low profile single-story homes on three to 5-acre lots. Brennan also plans higher density townhomes along the Southern Parkway.

“Except for the stuff down by the parkway, it would be hardly noticeable that this project ever even occurred,” Brennan said.

However, Raines said that while there is a concept for the development, there are no set or formal plans for the project because the project is not certain, and actual building could not take place for four or five years.

2013 WORCS Sand Hollow SVRA, Hurricane, Utah, April 20, 2013 | Photo by Dave Amodt, St. George News
2013 WORCS Sand Hollow SVRA, Hurricane, Utah, April 20, 2013 | Photo by Dave Amodt, St. George News

Objections from off-road advocates

While visual impact is a factor, even more important is the loss of area for the recreational users, said UPLA President Gil Meacham. With the number of recreational users growing rapidly, it is important to keep areas for the trail system to grow with the increased use, he said.

“Last year, over 100,000 people entered Sand Hollow State Park and over 70 percent of them went into the Sand Mountain OHV Area,” Meacham said. “It is not logical for the county to want to take away more land from this area.”

One of the most scenic and popular trails in the area is Milt’s Mile, and the top of that trail crosses over the southeast corner of the proposed exchange property, Meacham said.

“Even with large lots and minimum visual impact of the homes, there would be still be several homes within 100 yards of the trail.  The people running the trails will be losing their experience, and the homeowners will not be happy to have the dust and noise of people that close to their high-end homes,” Meacham said.

Off-road users are also concerned with the loss of trails. The proposed exchange property has several trails running through it, which Meacham said are documented by aerial photos taken as far back as 1993. And there are currently a lot more all-terrain vehicles, utility task vehicles, motorcyclists and four-wheel drive vehicles sharing the space, he said.

Another concern is loss of access points to the Sand Mountain area. The exchange property is currently being used as a staging area for off-roaders, replacing access lost when the Southern Parkway was completed, Meacham said. A proposed dam in Warner Valley could flood parts of two trails, and eliminate more access points.

“The recreational users represented by Utah Public Lands Alliance would love to see Mr. Brennan’s situation solved, but we don’t believe that the correct way is to remove land from the Sand Mountain Special Recreation Management Area. This area was designated in 1999 to be left as open travel area for the OHV community in return for many thousands of acres that were previously ‘open travel,’ but are now in the reserve.  Compressing more and more users into smaller areas is not good stewardship,” Meacham said.

Other options

It is possible for the private landowners to pull out of the HCP, Brennan said, but the “whole HCP would collapse.”

The HCP does state that any landowners can remove their property from the reserve or HCP, but they would have to go back to the Fish and Wildlife Service and develop their own HCP, Sandberg said. If landowners remove their property from the HCP, they would then not be covered by the HCP – and they couldn’t develop the property without permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The HCP puts them in a better position to be compensated than had they not been in the HCP and the reserve,” Sandberg said, “that’s how I interpret it.”

Public input

Before any land exchanges can occur, several things have to happen, Sandberg said. First, all the information needs to be gathered and given to the BLM. This stage includes biological surveys, and also cultural assessments to see if there are historic or archaeological sites or value.

Then, a full Environmental Assessment will be done, with full public input, Sandberg said.

Desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News
Desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | Photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News

“That EA will be done with full public involvement,” Sandberg said. Any interested parties will have a chance to comment. Opinions count, he said, “but they need to come in with data and information in order to influence the BLM.”

While the HCP will expire and need to be renewed in 2016, Sandberg does not expect any problems. The HCP could be renewed as it is now, but will likely include a few minor changes. Small changes have been made to the HCP agreement over the years, he said.


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  • PROTECT THE SHEEP December 1, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Let’s all feel sorry for the poor loan shark having trouble grabbing up more land…

  • Sniff? Sniff? Sniff? December 1, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    Something sure doesn’t smell right here. According to the article, “he (Brennan,) said that his Green Springs acreage is worth “north of $110 million.” However, Brennan said, he is willing to take $24 million in land value or in cash, and that figure includes the Sand Hollow parcel.
    Uh-huh. He is going to take 24 million even though it is worth 110 million. This is just another instance of the spin that this guy puts on things. I don’t think he should be screwed out of his land, but I do think he is so full of bull that he stinks.

  • No Saints in St. George December 1, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    The entire HCP is corrupt. How many groups were paid millions in taxpayer money, and given development property when the thing was first established BY THE COUNTY in the 1990’s? Why are we, the citizens, bailing out this guy who took property already in the HCP boundary as collateral for any kind of loan? My opinion is that the developer decided during the down turn from ’08 to ’10 that the HCP play would be a good way to make money during the down-turn due to the requirement to update at the end of the 20 year term.

    The property in question had previously been denied payment from the Fed’s during the initial HCP scam. Why can’t our elected officials stand-up to the fed like Cedar City did in regard to the prairie dog? The desert tortoise is listed at ‘Threatened’, and our area is on the extreme edge of the habitat as per the link provided. Again, why did our COUNTY LEADERS sign us up for this? (Except of course if anyone in County leadership made big money on the HCP deal, that is another stupid question).

    I say we let the HCP expire, and explode the whole thing. The truth is that the developer knows he has much more risk if he develops and sells the property. It is also not worth anywhere near the values listed in the article. I would love to see someone explore what really has taken place with the HCP and at least report on, or perhaps prosecute those involved. FOLLOW THE MONEY!

  • Leo December 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Brennan will not disclose how much he has invested in the property, why not? Something to hide? Suck it up and take your losses. Not all so called investments work and are profitable. How do I know, been there done it for over 40 years. Made money and LOST money. It’s all about greed.

  • PROTECT THE SHEEP December 1, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    I’m still so mad that I can’t make turtle soup of of these desert tortoise things anymore. We’ve been here since 1801 and used to make the best turtle soup. Darn liberals!

  • utahbiller December 1, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    I sold a house at a loss when I moved the last time; the economy was down. I took a risk when I purchased the house and I knew it. No one offered to make up my loss. Forget how much Brennan thinks the property is worth. It isn’t worth anything if it can’t be developed. Why should it be? It is in the reserve. Why should the tax payers be on the hook? If the land can’t be developed that is a good thing for 99.9% of the people who live in Washington County.

  • Lost Hiker December 1, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Losing this section of Sand Mountain would be detrimental to the OHV community. I hope this issue can be resolved before we lose any more places to ride in Washington County.

  • tc rider December 1, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    bobby the bottom feeder is looking for some handouts and he will not disclose what he actually has in the kitty, but hes a wantin a mitful, words out that hes a havin trouble fetching legal assistance because of past ethical issues with the bankrupcies and all, much much more to follow and you never know what skeletons are a gona come a knockin

  • tc rider December 1, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    I predict one of the first skeletons could come in the form of backtaxes owed to washington county and bobbys gona have issues with just the intrest payments on all that very very valuable land, you go bobby bottomfeeder. you go.

  • PROTECT THE SHEEP December 1, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Let’s just get him a cut of the Lake Powell Pipeline deal. I think he’ll be very happy with that $$$$$$$$$$$$$.

  • Real Life December 1, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    Why don’t you just come forward and disclose how much you have in it? Something is very fishy here.

  • Zonkerb December 1, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    Perfect place for a roundabout

  • tc rider December 2, 2014 at 10:31 am

    speaking of bottom feeders, the eelpout also known as a (lawyer) it is a bottom feeding sleazy type, slimey, kind of looks like a snake when you get it out of the water, back to the sleazy snake like laywer types that where involved back,say 2008-2010, what ever happen to some of the realty lawyers that were lacking moraales and ethics and especially one that has been disbarred, and his pa pa got in alot of trouble in salt lake for making brothers with different mothers and the papa ended up in saint george and one eelpout like offspring eventually unleashed his own reign of legal misdoings and was eventually disbarred, comon bobby, tell us more about this one.

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