DRAPER — What began as an effort to save 165 acres of Draper's SunCrest area will now likely result in a promise from the City Council to permanently preserve at least 3,000 acres of wilderness.
But the 165-acre development is still on the table — unless open space activists find a way to raise the millions the sale of the land would otherwise rake in to help the city pay off its lingering debt incurred in recent years to purchase thousands of acres of open space.
"It's heartening and encouraging," said Johne Brennan, a homeowner in the Suncrest neighborhood who helped spearhead the Save the Hollows effort.
"The City Council has taken a step back and said, 'We're going to wait and do this the right way.' I really thank them for being so willing to put their words into action," he said.
After facing a crowd of angry residents earlier this month who questioned the city's commitment to preserve Draper's open land because of the proposed development, the Draper City Council on Tuesday delayed a decision on whether to surplus the land until the city establishes a conservation easement agreement to protect about 3,000 acres of open land.
More than 1,100 people have signed the Save the Hollows petition, calling on the City Council not to sell an additional 55 acres of land to Blue Bison Development.
The developer was already under a 2012 contract with the city to develop 110 acres in the East Hollows area, along the Highland and Alpine border, for about 400 single-family homes and townhouses.
While supporters of the development argued selling the land would bring in more than $7.2 million to help pay down about $18 million in open space bonds, Brennan and other homeowners worried that the project would open the door to more development.
Protesters also complained that the open space master plan the city created earlier this year did not set any concrete protections into place like a conservation easement would, so there would be nothing to prevent elected officials from selling off more land.
"That was the big message we heard," said City Councilman Jeff Stenquist, a vocal proponent of the Blue Bison project. "So after that meeting, we (decided) we really just needed to get this easement done and put those fears to rest."
Draper Mayor Troy Walker and other city officials then met with Salt Lake County leaders to discuss the possibility of a conservation easement — an agreement that would designate tracks of open space and its recreational uses and establish Salt Lake County as the enforcer of those requirements.
"So it will be crystal clear, that this land is protected and locked in," Stenquist said.
Walker said Salt Lake County leaders have expressed willingness to work with the city on an agreement, so now city leaders can start drawing up the agreement.
"It'll be keeping our word, doing what we said we were going to do when we bought the property," the mayor said. "It will demonstrate our clear desire to protect these canyons."
About 1,700 acres of Draper's nearly 4,800 acres of open space is already under a conservation easement. The new agreement would protect roughly 3,000 more, Stenquest said, leaving the potential for some parcels to be sold to help pay off the city's bonds.
That could include the Blue Bison development, Stenquist said.
But Brennan said he's optimistic the Save the Hollows group will be able to raise enough donations over the next few months to include the 165-acre plot in the conservation easement and help the city pay off the bonds so the sale would not be necessary.
"We're hoping people who want to save open space are willing to put their money where their mouth is," Brennan said, adding that he's been in discussions with wealthy individuals, conservation organizations and other private donors who may be interested.
Brennan thanked Draper city leaders for listening to concerns and being willing to entertain alternative solutions.
"They could have railroaded this whole thing and chosen not to," he said. "They're willing to work with us; they're following through on their commitment."