HIDEOUT, Wasatch County — What some have called sneaky legislative maneuvering to allow a “land grab” has legally paved the way for what critics worry could be another Kimball Junction-like expansion on about 655 acres for commercial development on the other side of the highway from Park City.

And it could happen without buy-in from any of the surrounding counties.

Despite protests from Summit County, Park City and Wasatch County leaders, Hideout’s Town Council voted earlier this month to move forward with a process to annex those 655 acres, which developers Nate Brockbank and Josh Romney, son of Sen. Mitt Romney, want to develop but haven’t gained the support they’d need from Summit County to do so.

So, Romney and Brockbank went to Hideout, a small town nestled east of Jordanelle Reservoir across the highway from Park City, where the idea was warmly received.

Hideout’s move to possibly annex the land — which was included in an over decade-old Park City land deal to be set aside for open space and recreation — would clear the way for a commercial development that Hideout Mayor Philip Rubin said would help employ residents of thousands of future homes already headed for construction and help alleviate Park City traffic.

But Hideout leaders are the only local elected officials on board.

“This is quite the land grab from our perspective,” Summit County Councilman Chris Robinson told the Hideout Town Council the day of its vote, saying county officials had a “great deal of concern” with the proposal. “And we’re a bit chagrined that city government wouldn’t at least give us some notice of this action.”

The town of Hideout wants to annex hundreds of acres from Summit County and Wasatch County, including the land pictured in Summit County on Monday, July 20, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A ‘forced’ conversation

Hideout’s mayor in an interview with the Deseret News this week acknowledged his neighboring county and city leaders felt blindsided by the move, but he said that wasn’t the intent. Rather, Rubin said the aim is to begin pushing forward a solution that can’t come soon enough.

“I know it might seem a little forceful, but we want to force this conversation,” Rubin said. “We want a solution here, to get moving on it. I apologize if it ruffles some feathers ... but the need is real, and letting county and city lines act as a barrier is unrealistic. Those folks are not going to drive to Heber to shop, and they’re coming. So we better start talking about it.”

Josh Romney said the aim of the development is to bring in “as much retail as we possibly can,” but no “big box stores” like Kimball Junction. Rather, he envisions “neighborhood” retail outlets and grocery stores. He also said the development would include “hundreds” of affordable units for an area that is in “desperate need” of affordable housing.

But Park City Mayor Andy Beerman argues the Hideout annexation’s development proposal would further snarl congestion already troubling Summit County and Park City — and he worries it will only bring more development to an area that should be preserved for open space.

“When you’re in a hole, you stop digging,” Beerman said. “You’re not going to fix the fact that you’re growing by growing more. We’re already facing acute problems with traffic. ... People come up here to breathe. And if we build on that land, it just ends up a sprawl in the mountains.”

The annexation hasn’t happened yet, but the clock is ticking.

Under state code, Hideout must have a public hearing on the potential annexation within 30 days of the July 9 vote. After that public hearing, the Town Council could vote to annex, though the mayor said the intent isn’t to vote on that day.

‘Fast and furious’ lawmaking

Layered amid the debate about growth near Utah’s world-famous ski town are also suspicions of cagey legislative jockeying to clear the way for the development.

When Hideout made its move, it caused an uproar. How could a town so easily annex such an awkward, crab-shaped piece of land, connected to the town’s existing boundaries only by what Beerman called an “umbilical cord”?

Hideout Annexation: Town’s leaders want to annex about 650 acres of land for commercial development | Summit County

It’s thanks to an obscure bill, HB359, approved on the eve of the Utah Legislature’s final day of its 2020 general session. The bill won legislative approval — after it was blatantly misrepresented on both the House and Senate floors.

Lawmakers and a property rights lobbyist say those misrepresentations all came down to “misunderstandings,” and were not ill-intended. And the bill’s own sponsors said they didn’t even realize the implications until after Hideout made its move.

On the evening of the second-to-last day of the 2020 general session, the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, pushed a change to the bill that he told his Senate colleagues only included “technical stuff” and had “consensus” from all stakeholders. The underlying version of HB359 was being run to address an annexation issue in Davis and Weber counties that may leave an island or peninsula of unincorporated territory.

Without any debate, the Senate passed the substituted bill in under two minutes. Within the hour, the House approved the changes, after bill sponsor Rep. Calvin Mussleman, R-West Haven, said it was a “consensus bill” that had requirements that “everybody had to agree, county, city property owners,” to the annexation, with an amendment that “even ratchets that down even a little bit further.” Five days later, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill.

But in reality, Cullimore’s substitute to HB359, did much more than “technical” changes. And it actually removed the requirement for county consent, contrary to Mussleman’s summary of the bill. The bill cleared the way for cities or towns to annex unincorporated land without the consent of the county, in certain circumstances — like Hideout’s.

Hideout, thanks to HB359 (and more annexation code tweaks made by a June special session bill, SB5004), had a path forward, now not needing permission from Summit County or Wasatch County to annex the land.

Contrary to Cullimore and Mussleman’s statements on the House and Senate floors, not all stakeholders were supportive — or even looped in — on those changes. Though the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah League of Cities and Towns were supportive of the underlying bill, they did not and would not endorse an amendment that removed a requirement for county permission.

Rather, that new language had sweeping and even “dangerous” implications for counties across the state, according to the Utah Association of Counties.

“The substitute bill introduced a new concept that has never been contemplated under Utah law; the notion that an annexation can occur without consideration from the underlying county, in some specific circumstances,” wrote Brandy Grace, CEO of the Utah Association of Counties, in a letter sent this week to Cullimore, Mussleman, and to legislative leaders.

The letter asks for a repeal of the legislation.

“As the Association of Counties, we believe this to be a dangerous concept that has significant statewide implications, and should not be classified as mere ‘technical changes’ to the original draft that dealt with the handling of unincorporated islands when consensus has been reached,” Grace continued. “This concept was never presented to the Association of Counties for consideration, and we would not have supported a position that strips a county of their authority to consult or protest a contested annexation.”

Grace wrote it was “never conveyed that the intent was to use this in Summit County on an already contested land use circumstance, where the annexation was going to be used to “venue shop” land use policy.

“It is unfortunate that the consultants who were working on this issue did not convey the intended use of the new language,” Grace wrote in the letter.

Beerman is also hoping for a repeal of the legislation.

“It happened quickly, it was fast and furious,” Beerman said. “Clearly a mistake was made ... I hope the intent is to fix it.”

Repeal?

In interviews with Cullimore and Mussleman earlier this week, both lawmakers said they were told there was consensus over the bill and its changes, and both said they couldn’t recall who represented that to them in the chaos of the Legislature’s final days and hours. They said many parties, including a property rights coalition, gave input on the bill.

But in a separate interview with the Deseret News, property rights lobbyist Mike Ostermiller said he was accountable for that misrepresentation to both Cullimore and Mussleman.

“I accept full responsibility for that,” Ostermiller said. “I want to be 100% clear. I told Sen. Cullimore and Rep. Mussleman there was, as far as I knew, consensus between the parties involved in drafting the legislation.”

Ostermiller said at the time he believed there was consensus, and it was his oversight if the Utah Association of Counties hadn’t been included. He said there wasn’t anything “sneaky” or “ill-intended” happening, but rather he may have forgotten to include key partners in the conversations in the final days of the session.

“At the time, I thought there was (consensus),” Ostermiller said, and it wasn’t until the hubbub over Hideout’s annexation did he find out there were problems. “I can’t tell you if that’s because maybe I missed talking to certain key people during the session or maybe because they’ve evaluated since then and realized, ‘Man, this has issues.’”

The town of Hideout wants to annex hundreds of acres from Summit County and Wasatch County, including the land pictured in Summit County on Monday, July 20, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Both Cullimore and Mussleman said they had no clue their bill’s changes would clear the way for Hideout’s annexation, and they thought the approach was focused, rather, on a general policy change.

But Ostermiller also told the Deseret News an attorney who was working for developers Brockbank and Romney, Bruce Baird, had input on the legislation’s language.

When asked if he helped write the bill’s language, Romney in an interview said he never spoke directly with legislators, but “I had a couple of attorneys who were watching closely what was happening, so we were aware of some legislation that was going on.”

“It was definitely something we were interested in,” Romney said, adding that the “entire annexation process in the state of Utah is really flawed and broken” because “landowners don’t have a lot of control or say around their own properties.” He said that allows cities and towns to have “more power,” arguing the change benefited the town of Hideout, and “not necessarily” them as developers.

This week, after discussing the matter with stakeholders, Cullimore said he is now actively seeking a repeal of the legislation.

“There was a misunderstanding or misrepresentation to me, so because of that, obviously what I said on the (Senate) floor was not accurate, so I’m going to be asking for a repeal to correct that,” Cullimore said.

Cullimore said he’ll be asking legislative leadership to include a possible repeal in a special session expected for August.

If the timing works out, and if the language is repealed before Hideout moves to annex, Cullimore said a repeal could halt the Hideout annexation.

“I imagine it will,” he said. “It’s up to House and Senate (leadership) and the governor to repeal, so I can’t say for certain what will happen.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is supportive of including a possible repeal on the Legislature’s agenda, according to his spokeswoman. Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he’ll “study the issue” next week.

Hideout’s mayor, asked about the possibility of a repeal, welcomed the process to play out.

“We’ll let the Legislature sort that out,” Rubin said. “If we’re challenged and it turns out that we’re not (able), then we won’t.”

Ostermiller, aware of conversations to possibly repeal the legislation, still stands by the underlying policy included in the bill.

“From my perspective, I still think it’s sound public policy,” he said. “So that doesn’t mean we got it exactly right, at some point we may need to make some changes ... but we’re having those conversations.”