Sand Mountain land exchange falls through; developer offers alternative

Off-road vehicles in the Sand Mountain OHV Area during the Winter 4x4 Jamboree, Jan. 20, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Desert Roads and Trails Society, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – A proposed exchange for landlocked property within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve for land on Sand Mountain met its demise Tuesday during a meeting of the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee.

The exchange, proposed by developer Bob Brennan last fall, was touted as a possible way to resolve the longstanding issue of compensating landowners for land taken by the creation of the desert reserve over 20 years ago.

Desert tortoise on hills adjacent to Bear Claw Poppy Trailhead, St. George, Utah, April 26, 2013 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

“Sand Mountain is no longer feasible,” said Jim Raines, who represented Brennan and announced the withdrawal of the proposed land exchange at the advisory committee meeting.

Despite the proposal not working out as hoped, Brennan has nonetheless offered another potential solution to finally put to rest the issue that has lingered for 22 years.

Last year, Brennan proposed trading three parcels of land in the Sand Mountain area – 40, 200 and 700 acres respectively – for property he has locked in the desert reserve. This land would be traded for the value of 30 percent of Brennan’s 662 acres in the reserve while the remaining 70 percent would be donated to the reserve.

Sand Mountain sits south of Sand Hollow reservoir and covers approximately 18,000 acres of sand dunes and rock formations that has become a popular site for ATV riders, rock crawlers and other outdoor motor enthusiasts.

Read more: Land owner seeks swap out of reserve into Sand Mountain

Brennan, along with other property owners, had land locked up by the creation of the 62,000 acre desert reserve in 1996. The reserve was created to protect the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and other species while allowing development to continue in the rest of Washington County.

Map of the location of the nearly 700 acres develop Bob Brennan proposed to trade for the 662 he has left in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. He proposes to sell 200 acres while donating the rest to the desert reserve, St. George, Utah, Oct. 25, 2017 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Under the terms of the Habitat Conservation Plan that has managed the reserve, these remaining properties must either be purchased outright or traded for land of equal value.

Brennan has previously exchanged lands in Washington County for acreage locked within the reserve. He worked with the advisory committee and numerous other parties during the recent proposal to help push the exchange through until it hit some snags.

Proposal withdrawn

While members of the advisory council and other parties have been in favor of the land exchange, ATV groups that use Sand Mountain for recreational area opposed the idea.

Groups like the Utah Public Lands Alliance, an outdoor recreation advocacy group, had threatened to block the exchange through any legal means possible, including litigation.

Read more: Off-highway land users threaten action on Sand Hollow exchange

After a meeting with concerned ATV groups, Raines said Brennan dropped the 200-acre parcel at Sand Mountain as the parcel was considered a major staging area for outdoor motor events. Brennan nonetheless retained the 40- and 700-acre parcels.

In this file photo, off-road vehicles in the Sand Mountain OHV Area during the Winter 4×4 Jamboree, Jan. 21, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Desert Roads and Trails Society, St. George News

“So we moved forward with the two parcels, of course the 700 acre one that really had value,” Brennan said.

The killing blows to the proposal would not come until it was learned the 700-acre parcel would ultimately lack road and utility access.

The 700-acre parcel was considered valuable due it proximity to an incoming stretch of the Southern Parkway that will connect to state Route 9 on the eastern side of Sand Hollow reservoir. Though funding for this segment of the Southern Parkway has been approved, an anticipated interchange needed to access any development on the 700 acres – which comes with a price tag of $5 million – was not.

Read more: This is your annual snapshot of projects and plans for Dixie’s roads and highways

A second blow came when access to water utilities needed for any future projects at the parcel also didn’t work out.

“So with those three things happening, we realized that without access to roads and without access to utilities, the property would be appraised at a very low value,” Raines said.

In this file photo, National Public Lands Day cleanup effort at the Sand Mountain OHV area, Washington County, Utah, Sept. 30, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Dennis Nash, Red Desert Off Road/LINE-X of Southern Utah, St. George News

With Brennan being 70 and himself being 61, Raines said, they decided it was time to no longer pursue the property at Sand Mountain.

“After seven or eight years now, we’re coming to the conclusion there’s no land available in the state of Utah for exchange that would have sufficient value” for the property in the reserve, Raines said.

New proposal

Instead of pushing for the land exchange, Brennan now proposes to sell 10 percent of his holdings in the reserve to the Bureau of Land Management for $8 million, and donate the remaining 90 percent, which would otherwise carry an $80 million price tag.

Raines said he is working with the BLM to find funds for the proposed purchase, though $8 million would likely come from multiple sources.

Larry Crist, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative on the advisory committee, said there was a grant that could yield $2 million toward the purchase.

“We should prepare an application for that,” he said.

The proposal is time-sensitive, Raines said, adding that, “Maybe we can get this done this year.”

Lingering issues of privately-owned land within the reserve have been one of the factors holding up renewal of the Habitat Conservation Plan (another being the proposed northern corridor). The plan expired in 2015 but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed it to continue functioning as efforts are made to renew the plan.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Sceptic February 21, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    Thank goodness! Sand Mountain is a priceless jewel and one of the last areas left in the county that hasn’t been fenced off to keep the public out. Another land speculator turned away from getting their hands on public lands. This isn’t the only person that rolled the dice and purchased land for pennies on the dollar hoping to force the government to buy them out later at current market prices. The rest of the story needs to be told how anyone acquired rights to property previously owned by the BLM. Did he purchase the land before the tortoise was designated as endangered (knowing it could never be developed) and how much did he pay for it? We need to know what our elected officials know about this it doesn’t pass the smell test.

  • Caveat_Emptor February 22, 2018 at 8:57 am

    Thanks to UPLA, and the serious folks behind it, Sand Mountain will stay accessible to the public (with the right equipment).
    There is significant economic impact associated with the OHV trail system within Sand Mountain, and groups such as UPLA and others, have been successful in maintaining a well documented trail system.

    I have to agree with Sceptic’s comment above, that the historical perspective of this transaction, going back over 20 years, needs to be brought into the light.

  • r2d2 February 22, 2018 at 10:58 am

    This is great news. Sand mountain is one of best places in the area for ATV, OHV recreation. A special thanks to Hurricane and all the groups involved in keeping this area open.

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