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Salt Lake County denies canyon road

Board reverses approval given one month ago

A controversial road at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon has become a dead end.

The Salt Lake County Board of Adjustment, with a 3-2 vote, reversed a previous decision and denied 14 variances that would have been required to construct the road, which was to be used to access a planned housing development above the canyon. Just a month ago, the board had approved the variances for the road.

Marion Willey, a board member who had previously voted in favor of the road, refused to accept the findings of fact about the board's previous decision. He said he had "problems with a couple of the findings, and maybe more," and asked for an additional month to study the 14 page document, which is the written, legal explanation of the reasons for the variances. When the board voted against continuing the matter, Willey voted against the variances.

Although board members who voted against postponing the vote said they wanted to finish the issue, it is likely that the fight over a road that would climb the mountain at steep angles and cross slopes of more than 50 percent is actually just beginning. Terry Diehl, owner of Wasatch Pacific, said that building a road up the slope is the only possible access to the 85 acres the company owns on a plateau.

The decision, although disappointing, will not hamper their plans to start construction by the end of the year too drastically, Diehl said. Already, they had planned to submit a revised road plan that reduced the amount of cuts needed by more than half, which in turn would reduce the number of variances.

"Our intent, regardless of the decision, was to come back with the new road," Diehl said. "We will just have to get approval for that road instead."

After the decision, Save Our Canyons trustee John Johnson said he was pleased that they would not have to pursue legal action to stop the road. After the initial approval, the group had retained three attorneys, including former Utah Attorney General Jan Graham, to stop the road through the courts.

"We're delighted that county process corrected itself," Johnson said.

Despite the denial, Johnson said he expects to continue to struggle with road proposals that violate county ordinances.

"If Wasatch Pacific wants to come back with a road that has no variances, we have no problem with it," he said. "We are not anti-development. We're against inappropriate development."

Along with the impact on the canyon, the previous decision by the board had drawn heat because of discussions that County Councilman Randy Horiuchi — who had Diehl as his campaign finance director last year — had with the three board members who originally voted for the road. One of those, Steven Suite, is also Horiuchi's boss at a government relations firm, and speaking to him about all sorts of issues is not uncommon. Kevin Oakes, who also voted in favor of the findings, and Willey, who cast tie-breaking vote against the findings, had also been contacted.

Suite voted in favor of the findings of fact Wednesday, and said that it was a private property issue because Diehl should be allowed to access his property, not because of the "underhanded machinations" that some county councilors have suggested.

"I am somewhat incensed that people who know me well say that there is some sort of ethical issue with me," Suite said. "I talk to (Horiuchi) everyday."