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Traverse Mountain is the natural scenic crescent that shields Highland and Alpine residents from the rest of the world. It's the landmark that attracted many to live in the secluded communities.

But eight years ago the cities and Utah County admittedly made a mistake that has left the mountain's fate out of their hands. They let Draper annex the south face of Traverse Mountain. Now, residents of Highland and Alpine could soon look north and see a resemblance of the world they're trying to escape.Proterra Inc. has plans before Draper to build a 4,400-home community on 4,200 acres that will start on the northwest side of Traverse Mountain and eventually drape over into Utah County. The development, called Centennial, also will include a hotel, conference center and 18-hole golf course. Construction could begin in the next year and be completed in phases over the next 10 to 15 years.

"It's not a question of whether it will happen, but a matter of what will happen and how fast," said Randy Paul, chairman of the Highland Master Plan Committee.

Residents of the two Utah County cities, however, want the mountain and its wildlife habitat to be preserved and remain pristine. But they recognize that they lost that opportunity eight years ago when they could have annexed the land and preserved it through protective zoning.

Some residents asked Draper to de-annex the land. That's not likely to happen considering the big-time tax money staring Draper officials in the face. A group of Highland residents also organized last year and researched the possibility of a legal challenge to the annexation. They've conceded that the legal timetable for challenging the annexation likely has passed.

Residents say they now can choose to be passive bystanders, or pursue the one avenue they have left - diplomacy. Leaders in Alpine, Highland and Lehi are organizing the Traverse Ridge Advisory Committee that will try to influence Draper's zoning and planning decisions regarding Traverse Mountain. Lehi is in the picture now that it is annexing the Micron property located adjacent to Traverse Mountain. Each of the three cities will have one council member, one planning commission member and two residents on the committee.

"We don't know what kind of leverage we have here, but we want to get invited to the party and see what happens," said Larry Brown, member of the Alpine Planning Commission.

Brown will meet with Draper officials Saturday and propose that the committee be allowed representation and to comment at all meetings concerning the Centennial project. Residents of the three cities are fearful that Draper will be insensitive to concerns over the south side of Traverse Mountain.

Most Alpine, Highland and Lehi residents oppose any commercial or high-density development on the south slope of Traverse Mountain. However, the Draper land closest to the three cities is currently zoned commercial and high-density residential. Also, Traverse Mountain zoning currently has a 45-foot height limit on buildings. The committee wants this restriction to remain so Proterra cannot construct a high-rise hotel on top of the ridge.

"I don't think the three cities ought to default on our environmental concerns," Brown said.

Proterra officials, however, say the Centennial project is already designed to maintain open space, preserve wildlife habitat and create recreational opportunities. The project would include an equestrian center and hiking and biking trails. The developer also says no homes will be built on the ridge line, and the firm has hired an environmental consultant to address environmental concerns.

"It's good news that they've opened a dialogue, but it might lull us into believing that everything we say will be translated into results on the mountainside," Paul said.

Recognizing that diplomacy might not work, residents of the three cities are drumming up a political backup plan. The Centennial project proposes two major roads for traffic flow into Highland and Alpine. The proposed roads would pass through property located west of Alpine and north of Highland on land that is now unincorporated Utah County.

If one of the cities annexes the land, however, it could control construction of the roads. Also, the annexed land could be developed as a commercial zone. With no roads leading to Centennial from the south and the commercial zone at the base of Traverse Mountain, Proterra might be discouraged from commercially developing any of the land on the mountain's south slope.

"The only way we're going to remain small is to think big," Paul said. "If we don't combine as cities we at least ought to combine in plan-ning."

This plan, however, has all the makings of Alpine and Highland getting into an annexation war with each other. The land is currently targeted on Highland's annexation declaration statement, but Alpine has a public hearing scheduled for next week to discuss annexing the land for commercial reasons. Alpine Mayor Joel Hall supports a plan where one city would annex the land but both cities would share revenue generated by the new tax base.

"In a situation like this I think that's an idea worth looking into," Hall said.