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BEAVER - Alec Hornstein believes there is more than a property dispute under way in the Tushar Mountains.
Earlier this month, employees at the Mt. Holly Club resort posted signs around Puffer Lake saying "Private Property" and "Members Only." Hornstein, who guides tours in the Tushars, believes the signs were intended to retaliate against him and other residents who oppose the club's proposed $3.5 billion development.
"I think they're trying to strong-arm," Hornstein said.
Hornstein isn't alone. Two Beaver real estate agents contend Mt. Holly Club officials tried to silence them by pressuring their broker. An attorney for Mt. Holly has alleged that a county planning commissioner acted inappropriately by communicating with opponents of the development.
Up north, a private investigator earlier this month questioned the neighbors of a Salt Lake Tribune reporter who has written about the development and a convicted felon connected to it.
All this at a time when Beaver County leaders are pondering Mt. Holly Club's development plans. The planning and zoning commission is holding a work session Wednesday in Beaver and might take a vote on the proposal then. The final decision will rest with the County Commission.
Mt. Holly Club spokesman Bill Quick says there is no campaign to quash opposition, just an effort to answer the public's questions.
"Mt. Holly Club is making a concerted effort to communicate with the public, with the county, with the planning and zoning commission about the plan so they can make an informed decision about our club," Quick said earlier this month.
"As far as opponents are concerned," he added, "we recognize their right to voice their opinion."
Quick has said the signs were posted by an overzealous employee and were removed after county officials called with concerns. Quick also points out the good things Mt. Holly Club has done for the community - donating about $40,000 in cash and used ski equipment to the Beaver School District, and another $2,500 and sweatshirts, emblazoned with the school and club name, to the Beaver High School cheerleading squad.
"Our goal is to be a good citizen to the community because we are part of the community," Quick said.
The proposal is for an exclusive, gated community on the former Elk Meadows ski resort and subdivision 18 miles east of Beaver. People who buy property and pay the high annual fees would have access to existing ski slopes and a planned golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
But some owners at Elk Meadows have had a poor relationship with Mt. Holly Club from the beginning. Even before CPB Development of Holladay bought Elk Meadows in October, CPB owner Craig Burton led a public meeting where he said investors wanted to buy the existing condominiums, raze them and build new ones.
Anyone unwilling to sell could have access to the exclusive skiing, Burton said, but at rates of $150 to $400 a day. And existing owners would not be allowed on the golf course.
Erik Miller and his wife, Jen Christensen, are Realtors who represent about 35 properties on Elk Meadows. Miller believes that Mt. Holly Club has used abrasive business practices against people who haven't supported the development. He said that includes him and his wife, who own property on the mountain and have asked CPB for assurances that homeowners can have access to the ski runs and other recreations.
The upshot, Miller says, was that he and his wife were called to a meeting by their brokerage firm, ERA Brokers Consolidated. Some of the developers working on Mt. Holly Club had done business with ERA, Miller and Christensen said, and were complaining about their opposition.
Miller and Christensen said the broker explained that Mt. Holly Club principals were upset and asked the couple what they intended to do. They said they were going to stick with the homeowners.
Miller said he then suggested to the broker that ERA had a conflict of interest, and that it might be best for him and his wife to take the properties they represent and leave ERA. The broker agreed.
The couple have since found a new broker but remain angry at what they view as tactics to silence them.
Miller believes Mt. Holly also is upset at him and his wife for maintaining the property values in Elk Meadows. He maintains that shutting out existing homeowners from recreational activities is a way to depreciate the value of their land.
"It seems like a big scam designed to lower the price of the land up there so they can come in and buy it," Miller said.
Quick said Mt. Holly Club told ERA it wouldn't do business with Christensen and Miller, but that wasn't meant to pressure them to quit.
"There's no leverage there at all," Quick said. "Our position is Jen and Erik were very vocal in the community and to us about their opposition to the development, and we just decided not to work with someone who has that opposition to our development. I don't think that's unreasonable."
As for the property values, Quick said the club has purchased some of the homes in Elk Meadows and he's not aware that it is pursuing others.
"To say that they are actively [depreciating property], I don't see how that would serve" Mt. Holly Club, Quick said.
The Realtors aren't the only people Mt. Holly Club doesn't want to work with. It wants Beaver County Planning Commissioner Chairman Robin Bradshaw to recuse himself.
Craig Smith, a lawyer representing the developers, claimed in a March 8 letter to the county attorney that Bradshaw acted improperly by communicating with people opposed to the club. The letter also accused Bradshaw of "injecting his bias" about concern over water and other topics, of not being objective toward the development and of slowing the approval process.
Bradshaw did not return phone calls seeking comment. He was in the 4-to-1 majority when the planning commission approved the resort's conceptual design in November and participated in a March 21 public hearing on the proposal.
Scott Hoffman, who builds homes and develops communities in Las Vegas and lives in Beaver, is a proponent of the development. He said there is always some opposition to plans for change.
"I know a lot of people here," Hoffman said. "For every eight or nine who are for it I find one who is against it."
Meantime, a licensed private investigator has been asking questions of and about people seen as opposing the development. The investigator, retired FBI agent Steve Burdette, was in Beaver in late January and spoke with Carol McCulley, who said she's opposed to the development because it might siphon water from Beaver and the local power plant.
McCulley said Burdette would not say who sent him.
"He was very polite," McCulley said this week. "He didn't bother me that much. He just wouldn't tell me who he worked for."
Earlier this month, he also visited neighbors around the Salt Lake City home of Tribune business reporter Mike Gorrell, asking what they knew about him.
The man "did not say exactly what he was looking for, he just wondered if we knew of [Gorrell]," said Jason Shaw. He told the man he didn't know much about Gorrell and the man left.
Gorrell has reported on Mt. Holly Club's connections to Marc Jenson, who served a short federal prison sentence in 1992 for not filing a tax return and currently is charged with six felony counts of fraud and racketeering in state court. One of the companies Jenson manages loaned money to the resort's previous owner. Mt. Holly Club says Jenson has no ownership ties but has been retained as a marketing consultant.
Quick said Mt. Holly Club did not hire Burdette and he doesn't know who did. But Quick said the club does know Burdette's "activities are really part of an investigation he is working on but it isn't part of the Mt. Holly group at all."
On Monday, Burdette declined to say much about why he visited Beaver and Gorrell's neighbors.
"I was just doing some work for a client and at this point I'm not going to make any comments on it," he said.