The Utah Lands Trust is joining efforts to downsize a small town near Bears Ears

Utah Trust Lands Management, or TLA, has joined forces with a prominent real estate attorney in an effort to shrink the newly formed city of Bluff by nearly half.

The move came as a surprise to the town’s officials and 260 residents. The TLA (formally known as the School and Institutional Land Administration, or SITLA) leases, extracts, and sells its land to generate funds for Utah schools, and raised no objection to its inclusion in the Bluff boundary when the city was incorporated in 2018. It has not submitted any formal development plans, which have been rejected by the city council.

Bluff officially opposed a large solar farm on TLA land a few years ago, but the project is still a work in progress. Ultimately, the TLA has the final say on what happens on its land anyway, no matter what the city demands, because state law exempts it from local planning and zoning ordinances.

Finally, the government agency wants to remove more than 7,000 acres of its land from Bluff, most of it within a sandstone mesa known as Bluff Bench in the northeastern part of town. This proposal could cut off hundreds of additional acres owned by the US Bureau of Land Management and private landowners as well.

“Given all I’ve heard about SITLA already taking the general position that they want to work with the communities,” Bluff Mayor Anne Libanen said, “I’m surprised they didn’t reach out and try to work with us first before making a move like this.”

(Christopher Sherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Some residents have speculated that the move is retaliation for Bluff’s support of the 1.4 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, to which it proudly advertises itself as the gateway.

“As a Bluff resident who has worked for the past decade in Bears Ears, it’s hard to accept seeing our city exclusively targeted in this way,” said Josh Ewing, who ran the former Friends of Cedar Mesa nonprofit. “.

During a town hall meeting, other residents expressed concern that the TLA wanted to leave the door open to drilling for oil and gas at Bluff Bench, posing a risk to the aquifer directly below that serves both the city and the hundreds of families living on the nearby Navajo Nation reservation. . And they wonder what other big development plans the state wants to bring to their small town.

“They have legal mandates to develop their land for the school’s trust, and the city certainly understands that,” said Christopher McEnany, Bluff’s attorney. “… (but) Bluff was founded, in large part, because the people there wanted to have a say in the things going on around them. It’s a pity that … the response from SITLA here is to say, ‘No, we don’t want to work with you’ “We want out.”

TLA representatives declined an interview request, instead responding to a list of questions sent via email.

“We strive to work collaboratively with officials who have Trust Lands within their borders and have built many strong relationships over the past several decades,” the agency wrote. “We have repeatedly contacted Bluff officials but have not received a positive response.”

TLA confirmed that it had not attempted to disconnect from the municipality before.

“It wasn’t on my radar.”

Current efforts to reduce the size of the Bluff began in July 2022, when attorney Bruce Byrd informed the town that his client wanted to detach a square mile of privately owned land, called the Acton property, in Bluff Bench.

By then, the Bluff officials were used to picking fights with Bird. He helped another client remove nearly 400 acres in Combe Ridge, just months after the town was officially formed. The town hall was completely new. They had hardly a budget or staff, and few resources to stand up to Baird, a lawyer notorious for embroiling municipalities in expensive legal disputes.

“If we file a lawsuit, even if we win, we lose,” Libanen told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2021. “…he’s very successful at what he does.”

However, with the petition filed last summer, the City Council felt more firmly established and ready to take up counsel. They refused his client’s request on January 10 this year, citing the feeling among residents not to lose another part of their city. The council also said the proposal created an island of separate lands, impairing the ability of the city and San Juan County to provide services — a rationale according to state law and past court cases.

“I told the board we’re not done with Bruce Baird,” Libanen said. “He’s planning something.”

A few weeks later, on Jan. 30, Byrd reached out to TLA about separating some of its neighboring country’s territory, which would solve his client’s island problem, emails published by the Canyon Echo Journal show.

After an exchange of emails and phone calls, Byrd officially asked TLA to join his efforts on February 7.

Part of an email sent by attorney Bruce Baird to SITLA employees on February 7, 2023.

“I hereby ask SITLA to consider joining us in filing a new disconnection petition,” Baird wrote. “…I’m sure SITLA has as long experience as I have of owning property at the mercy of (Bluff) and its blatant activists.”

TLA staffers worked on mapping with Byrd and strategizing for boundaries that did not create islands or peninsulas from unincorporated land, giving the city few reasons to refuse secession.

By the spring, Kelly Bird, a TLA attorney, indicated that a developer looking to build a large solar farm in Bluff Bench wanted to speed up the plan. The city council had previously opposed the 1,000-acre project on TLA land in a 2019 resolution, because it fell within the Bears Ears’ older and larger boundaries and a lawsuit was pending.

“Our solar tenant is very interested in pushing the disconnect as quickly as possible,” Baird wrote on April 21.

On May 4, Byrd submitted a new disconnection request to Bluff officials. It covers an area of ​​9,514 acres, about 40% of the current city area.

Baird wrote that if Bluff rejects the petition, his client will take the matter to the district court.

“Bluff will lose this lawsuit, and the properties will be separated, but only after Bluff has squandered a fortune on attorneys’ fees,” he said in the request.

The new petition includes the 640-acre Acton property Byrd originally requested, as well as 7,370 acres of TLA land and 1,338 acres of US Bureau of Land Management property. It also includes 166 acres that are part of the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission, a pillar of the Bluff community and the adjacent Navajo Nation Reservation.

“It never occurred to me that he would collaborate with SITLA and bring this to us,” Libanen said.

It appears that the mission was not consulted on the disconnect plans either. TLA and Byrd included it to avoid creating a peninsula, according to their emails.

“We were not informed directly,” said Rev. Leon Sampson of the Episcopal Church of Navagoland. “It was a member of the Bluff community who told us something was going on.”

St. Christopher made it clear that she did not want to be separated from the city.

“We’ll wait,” Sampson said. “It’s up to Bluff.” “We are very supportive of maintaining our connection with this community.”

Bluff residents also raised eyebrows this summer when the TLA released a map of the lands it plans to share with the federal government in and around Bears Ears National Monument.

She proposes swapping several parcels of land she owns near and within Bluff as part of HR3049, the “Utah School and Institutional Land Management Exchange Act of 2023,” which is sponsored by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah. But the maps show that TLA will keep some of its plots within both the Bluff and the breakaway area, including the solar farm land in Bluff Bench.

While the city wanted a little development in Bluff Bench to protect the water supply and the original boundaries of the Bears Ears, turning over other state land to the federal government meant there was less room for the Bluff to grow and build its tax base.

“It’s baffling,” said McEnany, the city’s attorney. “I’m not sure how much that affects the disconnect issue, but it does mean that there is less land that can be developed within the city. It means that every acre of land that remains becomes more important.

Why would TLA want out of Bluff?

(Leah Hogesten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bears Ears strike in 2021. Some residents have speculated that the move is retaliation for Bluff’s support of the 1.4-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.

President Joe Biden restored the original footprint of the Bears Ears National Monument shortly after taking office in 2021, even as TLA sold four oil and gas leases within those boundaries weeks before his election. The state of Utah has appealed a lawsuit seeking to reduce the size of the memorial again.

TLA said it has no position on Bears Ears. Its primary interest is revenue creation for public schools.

The agency wrote in its email responses that it asked Bluff for a more “cooperative approach” as the city subdivided TLA ownership into Bluff Bench.

At a community hearing about the disconnect held Aug. 15, TLA assistant managing director Brian Torgerson said the agency objected to Bluff designating state lands as open space.

“We have a mission to develop these lands,” Torrigerson said. “…we don’t really see a great way forward for Bluff City.”

Returning to a single San Juan County, he said, would allow for conditional use, such as a solar farm. Torrigerson also noted Bluff’s lobbying for the Bears Ears, which he said made it “clear” that the city wanted Bluff Bench to be included in the national monument.

“The Town of Bluff has made it very clear that it does not want the Bluff Bench to be developed,” Torrigerson said.

The tenant of TLA’s solar farm in Bluff also needs more certainty, Baird said at the meeting.

“He still has very low confidence that coming to you for a zoning change will be an effective strategy to help his project move forward,” Bird said, though she acknowledged that TLA had the authority to move forward with the project anyway, regardless of Bluff’s zoning. . . “That’s what we plan to do, if we can’t disconnect.”

Bluff officials said in interviews that they didn’t realize the solar farm was a sticking point for the TLA. They immediately reached out to the agency for a solution when they realized she wanted to leave town.

“While TLA appreciates the current willingness of Bluff officials to work with us, this willingness did not occur until after the disconnection petition was filed,” the agency wrote in its emailed responses.

The agency said it “may” allow mining above the city in the future, although the solar farm will forbid such activities for the duration of its lease.

“The outage also does not affect our ability to develop mineral real estate,” the TLA wrote.

Baird said his clients of the Acton estate had no plans to develop their empty square-mile plot of land. He said they simply did not want the city to tell them what they could do with their land.

“It’s not my client’s fault, and it’s not SITLA’s fault that this city decided to consolidate a huge portfolio of real estate,” Byrd said at the August 15 hearing.

Bluff’s current boundaries include approximately 23,700 acres. Bird noted that this is larger than the West Valley city, which has a population of about 135,000.

City officials say the Bluff’s large size was intentional, as residents want a say in their future growth.

“It’s a somewhat unique problem in Utah, where you have communities surrounded by state and federal land, which they have very little control over,” said McEnany, Bluff’s attorney. “It’s a challenge for the local government to do anything in that context.”

In one interview, Bird mostly acknowledged Plouffe’s decency in the petition process, noting that last month’s hearing did not feature the “screaming activists” he referred to in the email that launched his partnership with TLA.

But Bird insisted the town’s opposition to the disconnect was unreasonable, calling residents “NIMBYs,” short for “not in my backyard,” and “BANANAs,” short for “don’t build anything at all anywhere near.” from anything”.

“The city has no money; “It can never provide any meaningful services,” Beard said. “Development denial – this is the only service they will ever be able to provide.”

Lipanen said the city council is likely to make a decision on the latest disconnect request by the end of September.

“We’re taking our time, building some confidence, and getting us back on track,” said the city’s mayor. “This is my ultimate goal, not to be at odds with SITLA.”

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