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The owners of the six pieces of land under consideration to house a new Utah state prison are a diverse group ranging from one of the state's most prominent families to a mining behemoth.
But only one of these properties changed hands in the middle of the prison debate and the buyers included Josh Romney, the son of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, co-chairman of the state's Prison Relocation Commission, says the owners, no matter how politically connected, won't influence the final decision. Instead, he assured, the outcome will be driven by a fair and objective review of each parcel and a study of the building costs. That review is just beginning.
"Ownership has had nothing to do with the process to this point and I don't think it will have anything to do with it moving forward," Wilson said.
And yet, even Wilson found it interesting to learn who may benefit from selling about 500 acres of empty land to build a proposed state-of-the-art prison.
Romney's land • In February 2013, Romney and a group of investors bought four plots of land tucked between Camp Williams and the burgeoning city of Saratoga Springs, paying an undisclosed amount of cash to a developer who lives in San Francisco.
About five months later, Romney reached out to Wilson to say he owned property well suited for a prison. Wilson said he never discussed the property in any detail and encouraged Romney, who is a real-estate developer, to submit his proposal to the Office of Legislative Research. Wilson said he didn't know Romney's land had made it to the group of six finalists until the Prison Relocation Commission's consultants unveiled their rankings to the panel's members in early October. "I was surprised," Wilson said of learning Romney's land was ranked third in the early assessment.
Romney and his business partners did not return The Tribune's requests for comment on Thursday.
City leaders in Saratoga Springs and nearby Eagle Mountain, along with a big group of concerned residents, have aggressively protested this proposal, saying the land is too close to homes and schools.
Jan Memmott is one of the leaders of that community group, which has unsuccessfully tried to meet with Romney. She said she hopes the owners of this property will "keep other factors in mind other than the bottom line." She also said Romney advocating for a prison in these Utah County bedroom communities might hurt his stated interest in running for public office in the future.
"If he wants a political future here, I don't think this is a way to gain any political points," she said.
The racetrack site • As it now stands, there's an empty field next to the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele County and when the state's consultants saw it, they thought it could be a decent place for a correctional facility.
They approached the family of Larry H. Miller, which also owns the Utah Jazz, a series of movie theaters and car dealerships.
"They asked if they could look at it and the Millers said they could look at it," said Linda Luchetti, a spokeswoman for the Miller Family Real Estate company.
She said the Millers have no opinion on whether the prison should be built there, on land that was once owned by the family of Tooele County Commissioner Bruce Clegg.
The Tooele County site is the only one among the finalists that hasn't faced immediate opposition. Commissioners are taking a wait-and-see approach to the selection process at this point, but some in the county were surprised to hear that the prison may be built so close to not just the Motorsports Park but the county fairgrounds and a large outdoor pool.
North Airport • Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has already stated his strong opposition to moving the prison near Salt Lake City International Airport, but the owners of that property are all for it and the Relocation Commission sees it as a top contender.
Almost all of the land is controlled by 18 members of the Swaner family and it has been in their family, sitting vacant, for nearly 100 years, according to Julie Swaner, treasurer of the family corporation.
"We have been waiting pretty patiently," she said.
The Swaner family has 439 acres and the state wants 500 acres for a new prison.
To reach that threshold the Swaners have lined up an agreement on 80 more acres owned by the Moyle family and the University of Utah Development Office.
The Swaners believe the land is isolated enough that it won't become surrounded by future development and yet close to the urban center, a top priority for the state selection team.
The Jones farm • The Relocation Commission's top-ranked site at this point is on the west side of West Jordan and has been a wheat farm since at least the 1940s, when the Jones family led by Robert Jones and his son's Lamar and Merlin bought land there.
As that city has grown, that old farm has become closer and closer to a major metro area and yet it's still far enough out that the state Commission believes it deserves close scrutiny.
City leaders are furious, believing a prison in that location would stunt potential commercial growth, but the Jones family is willing to see this process through.
Robert Jones has passed away and son Lamar now lives in Oregon. Merlin Jones lives in Salt Lake County, but he was on vacation Thursday and unavailable for comment.
City founder • Developer John Walden was instrumental in creating Eagle Mountain, now one of Utah's fastest-growing cities, and he still owns thousands of acres in this northern Utah County community. He offered 625 acres of grasslands to the state for a prison, despite the objection of city leaders.
Eagle Mountain Mayor Christopher Pengra wants to maintain a good relationship with the city's founder, but at the same time, he said he spent 90 minutes trying to persuade Walden to back away from the prison project. He was unsuccessful and he left the meeting unsure of the landowner's motivations.
"Perhaps he sees something I don't," said Pengra, who believes a prison in the city would scare away other businesses.
Walden did not return calls for comment on Thursday. Walden has his own political connections. The attorney for his Eagle Mountain Properties is state Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs.
The same community group fighting the Romney parcel in Saratoga Springs is also fighting Walden's bid in Eagle Mountain.
The west side • The Commission also is looking at a second location in Salt Lake City close to the airport. This spot is owned by Rio Tinto, the parent company of Kennecott, which operates a major copper mine in the valley.
Kennecott spokeswoman Piper Rhodes said the Commission approached the company, not the other way around, and that Kennecott would back the position of city leaders, who have already announced their opposition.
"If Salt Lake City feels that site is not appropriate for their community, then we support that decision," she said.
The plot of land is near Interstate 80 and 7200 West.