A proposed transfer of 338 acres from the federal government to the state Division of Wildlife Resources could be completed by mid-December, despite continued opposition from Utah County residents and elected officials.
The property, which borders the southwestern Utah County town of Goshen, was once part of a farm and ranch operated by Garth Boswell.Now, officials from the federal Farm Service Agency are advancing a proposal to transfer the land to Wildlife Resources as part of the Utah Lake Wetlands Preserve, a Central Utah Project mitigation effort mandated by Congress.
Wildlife Resources officials presented a proposal for the land transfer to the Utah County Commission on Tuesday. Although the commission won't actually decide if the transfer takes place, Wildlife Resources procedures call for a presentation to be made to all government entities affected by such transfers.
"We've received a lot of public opposition to this transfer for a variety of reasons," said County Commission Chairman Jerry Grover.
Most of those opposed to the plan cite concerns about the property's viability as wetlands as well as fears Wildlife Resources would interfere with maintenance of an irrigation canal on the property.
However, Robert G. Valentine, Wildlife Resources director, last week sent a letter in favor of the transfer to the committee that will make a recommendation to Gov. Mike Leavitt. Leavitt will make the final decision about whether or not Wildlife Resources can accept the property from Farm Service Agency.
In his letter to Carolyn Wright of the Resource Development Coordinating Committee, Valentine said: "Now, through the donation process, FSA is eager to dispose of land which they consider to be an expensive liability."
The Farm Service Agency became involved in legal wrangling over the property more than a decade ago after Boswell defaulted on a loan. Three years ago, Farm Service got title to the property when no one bid on it at a bankruptcy court auction.
If Leavitt allows Wildlife Resources to accept the gift, the division would pay roll-back taxes due on the property to Utah County and would make an annual payment of 50 cents per acre in lieu of taxes, Valentine said.
Bill James, Wildlife Resources' CUP coordinator, said the Resource Development Coordinating Committee likely will consider the proposal during a meeting Nov. 26.
The committee then will pass information and a recommendation on to Leavitt, who could make a decision shortly thereafter. If Leavitt allows the transfer, the paperwork could be completed as soon as mid-December, James said.
The final hurdle would be to gain approval from Farm Service officials in Washington, D.C., but opposition there doesn't seem likely, James said.
Meanwhile, during Tuesday's County Commission meeting, all three commissioners expressed consternation about the transfer. The commissioners last month sent letters to Farm Service officials expressing their concerns.
Grover said it was unclear whether or not Farm Service went through the proper procedures for putting the property out to bid after foreclosure. Also, he said, less than 70 acres of the property are wetlands.
At a public hearing last month in Goshen, residents said the property is too close to the town's borders and the transfer would essentially landlock Goshen. Also, farmers were worried Wildlife Resources wouldn't allow mosquito abatement and noxious weed control near the irrigation canal that carries water to their crops.
However, Wildlife Resources officials say they will allow legal pesticides to be used and won't interfere with regular maintenance of the irrigation canal.
"We would certainly be working with local authorities to have the best relationship possible," said Wildlife Resources' Brent Hutchings.
James said the parcel of property is only one of many pieces of the puzzle Wildlife Resources is trying to put together in order to comply with the mandates of Congress' CUP Completion Act. Congress allowed for more than 21,000 acres of wetlands to be included in the preserve to offset construction work on the Central Utah Project.
"Is this the highest priority in the Utah Lake Wetlands Preserve? No," James said. "But is this important enough to pursue? Yes."
James said Wildlife Resources is willing to listen to the concerns of residents and elected officials. The property isn't viable for farming anymore, James said, because accompanying water shares were sold at auction. However, the parcel would be great for migratory birds, he said.
Commissioners David Gardner and Gary Herbert said Tuesday one of their concerns is continued acquisition of private lands by government entities.