By Zak Podmore
(Crossposted in the San Juan Record)
Only a few months have passed since Bluff’s first town council was sworn into office and already the boundaries of the newly incorporated town may be redrawn.
On Oct. 24, Lyman Family Farms Inc., a privately-owned company with real estate holdings across Utah, requested that 391 acres on Comb Ridge be disconnected from the town of Bluff.
The notice came in the form of a sternly worded letter to Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen and the town council.
“Simply put, if Bluff does not allow the Disconnection Property to disconnect peacefully then Lyman will file suit in District Court,” wrote Bruce Baird, the attorney for Lyman Family Farms. “Bluff will lose the suit…but only after Bluff has wasted a fortune on attorney’s fees.”
On Nov. 29, a public hearing on the disconnection request was held in Bluff. Roughly 40 town residents were in attendance, as was Baird.
Councilmember Brant Murray laid out the timeline of Bluff’s incorporation, noting that the Lyman Family Farms property was purchased as Bluff was deciding on its future boundaries.
In the summer of 2016, the Hole in the Rock Foundation requested the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) auction off 391 acres of slickrock on Comb Ridge just north of Highway 163. The request prompted a public hearing in Bluff that more than 100 people attended, with the vast majority of comments opposed to the sale.
When the auction took place in October 2016, Hole in the Rock offered $284,000, but were quickly outbid by Joseph L. Hunt, president of Lyman Family Farms, who spent $500,000 for the parcel. At the same auction, Hunt spent $1.74 million on a parcel near Zion National Park.
Hunt, originally of Blanding, has significant ownership of the South Jordan-based Air Medical Resource Group, which includes Eagle Air Med.
Lyman Family Farms is registered with the State of Utah as a vegetable and melon farming business but does not appear to be engaged in agriculture.
According to state records, Hunt incorporated the business in the summer of 2014. In the years since, Hunt has spent millions of dollars at SITLA auctions buying land near popular public lands destinations.
After the Comb Ridge sale, Chris Webb, an advisor to Hunt, told the Record, “This property will continue to hold value, particularly if the Bears Ears National Monument is created.”
Months later, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate the land surrounding the parcel as a national monument, and the parcel remains adjacent to the reduced Shash Jaa unit.
During that same period in 2016, a committee of Bluff residents was taking the first steps towards incorporating the town.
“It quickly became apparent to the boundary committee that people in Bluff feel like we are citizens of this valley,” said Murray, who was on the committee, “so we set about to incorporate the valley.”
More than a year after the SITLA auction, in November 2017, Bluff residents voted to incorporate 38 square miles of land, including the Lyman parcel, by a three-to-one margin.
Baird told the council that as far as he knew, his client was not aware the Comb Ridge parcel was drawn within the town boundaries until after the incorporation had passed.
Baird went on to clarify that his letter to the council was not meant to be a threat but a statement of fact. Baird has represented private landowners in several other disconnect cases, including a case against Bluffdale that went to the Utah Supreme Court in 2007. The court ruled in favor of Baird’s clients, and Bluffdale was forced to accept a 4,000-acre disconnection.
“I won’t go into how stupid Bluffdale was [in that case] because your town is a much nicer bunch of people,” Baird said at the hearing. He reiterated that Bluff would lose the case if they fought disconnection.
“I would suggest, respectfully, that there are many better things to spend the money of this community on, improving this beautiful community, rather than paying lawyers,” Baird said. “I don’t need more money. I’d rather not make more money off of this.”
A number of Bluff residents spoke after Baird. Josh Ewing raised questions about potential differences from the Bluffdale case and said there were “multiple demonstrably false statements” in Baird’s letter, including a statement that there are no existing public streets or ways on the property.
Nine Class D county roads of varying lengths run through the parcel. The property owners briefly closed access to one of the roads last year, but it was reopened after public outcry. Encumbrances attached to the parcel when it was sold include “Easement No. 2081, issued to San Juan County for roads for a perpetual term.” Ewing suggested the town look into options for fighting the disconnect.
Marcia Hadenfeldt said, “It would behoove us to stand united as best we can to say, ‘Stop pulling the rug out from under us when we haven’t even woven the rug yet.’”
“It makes me nervous as a community member that there’s a chunk of our town that doesn’t want to participate,” agreed Sarah Burak. “I feel [the property owners] could support our community much better by working with us than by withdrawing from us.”
No residents spoke in defense of the Lyman Farms disconnection, but several people cautioned the council against spending money to fight a potentially expensive lawsuit during the first year as an incorporated town.
Others asked that Lyman Farms at least pay to redraw plat maps and other paperwork if the council approves the disconnect.
Malyssa Egge, a local educator, joined several residents in inviting Hunt and Lyman Family Farms to Bluff to discuss alternatives to disconnection. “What would it take for your client to come and meet with us to work out some kind of cooperative agreement, some kind of mediation?” she asked. “What would it take for us to decide to be good neighbors?”
“Maybe you’re the guy who’s going to help us come to this solution as a community where we can all benefit,” Egge said to Baird. “You said you don’t need more money, so perhaps this is something you’d want to do for us pro bono.”
Mayor Leppanen said the council hopes to host an independent real estate attorney in Bluff this month to answer public questions about the disconnection.
The council has to decide whether or not to approve the disconnect within 45 days of the November 29 hearing.