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Scratch Saratoga Springs off the prison relocation list. Instead it looks like the fast-growing city will get another major housing development.
Western States Ventures, a company that includes Josh Romney, is expected to request on Wednesday that its property be removed from the six sites the Prison Relocation Commission is now considering. That was part of the deal it signed with the Saratoga Springs City Council the night before. In exchange, the city will enter into negotiations to turn Western States' 480 acres into a housing development that could reach 2,000 residential units.
"I'm looking forward to getting us off of that nasty list as fast as possible," said City Councilwoman Shellie Baertsch.
When the council voted to approve the agreement, dozens of concerned residents applauded and some jumped out of their seats. It may take years before homes and businesses start to pop up on the property, which is sandwiched between Saratoga Springs, Eagle Mountain and Camp Williams, but on this day, stopping a prison from moving in was all that mattered.
The state Legislature has decided to move the prison from Draper, creating a commission to pick the new site. It unveiled a short list last week that included the site in Saratoga Springs, co-owned by Romney, the son of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Other potential locations included parcels in Eagle Mountain, Tooele County, West Jordan and two in Salt Lake City.
Western State Ventures bought the land in February 2013, and Romney shopped it to state lawmakers as a potential prison site that summer. Then in the fall, the company proposed a housing development, which would require Saratoga Springs to annex the land. That deal stalled and then went dormant. That is until city leaders learned that the prison commission had their eye on the property.
Bruce Baird, the attorney for Western States Ventures, said city officials then contacted the company seeking a way to avoid a prison in their community. Two months later, they signed Saratoga Springs' first "pre-annexation agreement," with the hope of finishing an annexation plan before the state Legislature convenes in late January.
The Prison Relocation Commission plans to narrow the list of six sites to one or two before the legislative session begins, during which a site could be chosen.
Incoming House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, a member of the Relocation Commission, first learned of the development plan in Saratoga Springs early Tuesday. "More power to them. It is a free country," he said. "They can do what they want."
And yet, he's concerned that the inclusion of the Western States site on the short list may have led the city to strike a deal it didn't have to.
In the same meeting where the commission agreed to further explore six sites, Hughes also added new criteria where consultants would take into account the economic-development opportunities in an area and its projected population growth. That analysis is just getting started.
"I think there was going to be further scrutiny to these sites and I'm not confident that Saratoga Springs would have found itself as an ultimate site," Hughes said, promising a deliberative process. "I think we can do that in a way that cities don't have to make side deals with landowners to try and protect their interests."
Baird declined to comment, as did the three representatives of Western States Ventures who attended the City Council meeting, including Nate Brockbank. Romney did not attend the meeting.
Western States agreed to reduce the size of the development, dropping the cap on housing units from 2,200 to 2,000. And both parties decided to remove a March 31 deadline to reach an annexation agreement. Baird said his clients would also change its development plan to respond to the concerns of the Utah National Guard, which operates Camp Williams.
Adjutant General Jefferson Burton told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier Tuesday that he was uneasy about homes or apartments butting up to the border of the military training site. He warned the training can be loud and he expressed concern about the potential for fires due to the dry conditions in the area.
Burton said he'd seek a strip of green space as a "buffer" between any residential property and Camp Williams. Baird said that Western States would "feather" in the development, putting at least half-acre lots on the border.
Congresswoman-elect Mia Love, a former mayor of Saratoga Springs, issued her first statement about the prison-relocation process on Tuesday. The 4th Congressional District, which she will represent, includes three of the six potential sites, including her hometown, Eagle Mountain and in Salt Lake County West Jordan.
She asked that the Relocation Commission continue consulting with local elected officials.
"While other locations may favor a prison, my constituents and I believe that a new prison will diminish future population and economic growth," Love said in a statement.
No city or county is welcoming the prison with open arms. The closest to that is Tooele County, where leaders oppose the site under consideration but some are willing to consider other options.
Like Saratoga Springs, its neighbor Eagle Mountain wants nothing to do with a new prison. The City Council there is holding an emergency meeting on Wednesday where it is expected to approve money to fight the potential prison relocation.