Rails or relics » Former House speaker denies wrongdoing in land deal.
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A scenic archaeological site that's on track to become a transit-oriented development in Draper was all set for permanent preservation last summer until then-House Speaker Greg Curtis stepped in on behalf of a landowner he represented.
State lawmakers in 2000 set aside 252 acres by the Jordan River near 13500 South intending permanent protection of a buried 3,000-year-old American Indian village and open space linking to a burgeoning river parkway. The law they passed also directed the Department of Natural Resources to grant a perpetual conservation easement to a preservation group willing to manage the resulting parkland.
It took years to find that willing group, DNR Executive Director Mike Styler said Tuesday, but last summer the state was ready to sign an agreement with Utah Open Lands. That's when Curtis contacted Styler and asked if he would hold off. Curtis, an attorney, represented a private landowner who wanted to trade adjacent land to get better access to nearby Bangerter Highway.
"He said, 'I'm calling today not as Speaker Greg Curtis, but as attorney Greg Curtis,'" Styler recalled Tuesday.
The DNR boss listened and stalled the contract with Utah Open Lands, he said, because it appeared his department could benefit from a trade. The private land included a trail that the state could preserve, Styler said.
Curtis, who lost a re-election bid in the fall, now lobbies for Utah Transit Authority and on school issues for Draper City. When approached Tuesday at the Capitol for comment about his involvement, he initially refused.
"Go find another f------ boogeyman," he said.
Eventually he acknowledged that he represented the land's original developer but said he did nothing wrong. DNR had eight years to complete the conservation deal before that, he noted.
Since last summer, Curtis' former client has agreed to sell the property, but a bill before this year's Legislature would enable the swap for a new developer to build a commercial and residential village around a planned commuter-rail station. UTA likes the plan because it moves the station and its park-and-ride lot closer to Bangerter and more riders on the Salt Lake City-Provo line it's building.
A professional archaeology council opposes the swap, and the Utah Rivers Council wants the land saved because it abuts the Jordan River Parkway.
Rivers Council Executive Director Ted Wilson said Curtis' involvement was a conflict of interest, at best.
"For the speaker of the House to go to a state agency," Wilson said, "one that depends largely on his work and the Legislature's work for its budget, puts undue pressure on the agency and is highly inappropriate, if not unethical."
Wilson also questioned the appropriateness of UTA board member Terry Diehl's financial stake in the development. Diehl, himself a developer, said he is working as a consultant for Whitewater VII Holdings, the group that now is proposing the mixed-use village around the station.
Diehl has disclosed his conflict to the UTA board and excused himself from votes on the matter, but Wilson said his relationships with other board members could sway them.
Diehl said Tuesday the swap is of no particular value to his client, Whitewater VII. Either way, he said, the project will gain access to Bangerter.
"It's more that UTA would like it [on the state land], and so would Draper City," Diehl said. "I know the developer doesn't care."
Utah Open Lands thought it had a deal to protect the land last year until someone from DNR's Division of Forestry called Executive Director Wendy Fisher to tell her it was off.
"We understood they felt good about it," Fisher said Tuesday. "Then we got a call saying they couldn't sign it."
They never explained why, she said.
Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.
Salt Lake County Council members want to stop a planned rail-side village in Draper -- not because they don't like the idea of a FrontRunner-centered development, but because the project could disrupt an archaeological find dating back 3,000 years.
The council voted 7-2 to oppose legislation that would authorize a land swap between the Utah Transit Authority and a private developer for a commuter-rail station. Here's the concern: The FrontRunner stop and nearby village would rise atop ancient ruins that suggest American Indians farmed and cooked corn in the region long before previously believed.
"This is a tremendous find," Councilman Jim Bradley said. "If we go forward and develop this, that treasure is lost forever. That, in and of itself, is reason to look at an alternative site."
Council members Jeff Allen and Randy Horiuchi cast the only dissenting votes, urging their colleagues instead to take a neutral position on HB179, which relates to state-owned land amendments.
Horiuchi said the county is sticking its nose into someone else's business. "Why put the full weight of the county behind the issue when we don't have much standing on it?"