This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
While state Rep. Brad Wilson was serving on the panel that recommended moving the prison and then led the group responsible for picking a new location, his company, Destination Homes, was building town houses slightly more than a mile from the aging state lockup in Draper.
That 29-unit project, Sunflower Crossing, never came up during the contentious and often cynical debate about relocating Utah's main prison as critics lobbed allegations that the effort was driven by the profit motive of developers. The Salt Lake Tribune only learned about the connection recently from an upset homeowner who called about a chronically leaky window.
An unapologetic Wilson said there's a good reason Sunflower Crossing never became an issue. There was no conflict of interest, he insists, because he sold the last of the homes months before the Prison Relocation Commission he led as co-chairman released any details on potential new prison sites and years before the penitentiary will actually move.
"Homes didn't sell faster there because the prison might move some day nor did they sell for any more," said Wilson, R-Kaysville, whose company generally builds in South Jordan's Daybreak community and in the Layton area. "I guess I would have thought more about it if I thought I would have benefited in any way. I didn't benefit, nor did my company benefit."
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, isn't a developer; he's a lawyer, and while he doesn't know the details surrounding Sunflower Crossing, he believes it would have been a legitimate part of the public debate.
"When in doubt, when there is any question, disclose," said King, who argued Utah's part-time lawmakers should try harder to avoid legislation that could touch on their day jobs. The Democratic leader said it's "just remarkable" how often people "are convinced or suspicious, at the very least, that there are going to be legislators who profit personally."
King, like most lawmakers, eventually voted to move the prison from Draper to west of the Salt Lake City International Airport. He said Wilson may be right that he received no financial benefit, but perception matters.
Wilson argued that a lawmaker's day job is an asset, not an obstacle.
"My belief is we want lawmakers who have a real job in the real world," he said. "Then we have a Legislature full of people with a 'vested' interest in the success of our state."
Conflict of interest? • During the prison-relocation debate, opponents of the move criticized Wilson for being a developer. In reaction, the Prison Relocation Commission published a question-and-answer piece that asked: "Doesn't he have a conflict of interest since the plan is to redevelop the Draper site?"
The answer didn't mention Sunflower Crossing. Instead, it said that Wilson and the other commission members were prohibited from playing a role in the debate over what would happen with the Draper site while they were searching for a new prison location.
Wilson joined the first Prison Relocation and Development Authority in January 2012, and that May he bought the first six lots at Sunflower Crossing. He started work on another 10 units by February of the following year when City Weekly broke the story followed by other news media outlets, including The Tribune that Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, owned more than 30 acres of undeveloped land roughly four miles from the prison. Similar to Wilson now, Niederhauser said at the time that his residential development would be wrapped up before the prison moved, negating any benefit and thus any conflict.
Buzz Welch, who at the time was the director of the Ivory Boyer Real Estate Center and the Master of Real Estate Development program at the University of Utah, said that when the prison leaves, property values are expected to jump by $10,000 to $15,000 overnight and even the public discussion could drive up prices.
"Because the discussion is being handled the way it is, and it's being expedited the way it is, I do believe these property values are already seeing an impact," he told The Tribune in 2013.
Welch and the new director of the Master of Real Estate Development, Danny Wall, declined to comment for this story.
Wilson said he took no steps to keep Sunflower Crossing a secret. His conflict-of-interest form filed with the House listed Destination Homes and an online search of his company then would have brought up Sunflower Crossing as one of its projects. The Sunflower Crossing reference was removed in late 2014, after the final home had sold.
No problem • House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, knew about the development and even visited it, though Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Wilson's co-chairman on the Prison Relocation Commission, knew nothing about it. Both Hughes and Stevenson said they see no way Wilson could have profited from his public position.
"When realizing Destination Homes had a project in Draper, I did not pause or go, 'Wait a minute, that could be a problem,' " said Hughes, a developer and property manager who lives in Draper, and largely because of that tried to publicly distance himself from the relocation process. He said if the land was directly adjacent to the prison or if Wilson planned to sit on the undeveloped land until the prison moved, then there might be a conflict.
A Tribune review found no obvious financial benefit. A look at nearby property values collected by the Salt Lake County assessor showed some fluctuation in the area, and a few parcels saw big gains, though they were closer to a new FrontRunner train station than the prison.
More than a half-dozen owners of the town-house community told The Tribune the potential prison relocation played no role in their decisions to purchase. Many said they had previously lived in the Draper area or were looking for a location near their work. Only a couple of the owners had even heard about the prison debate when they decided to buy in 2013 and 2014.
Instead, the owners said they liked the access to transportation, the open floor plans, hardwood floors and decorative brick walls in the living room.
But some also expressed concerns about the quality of the construction, which is why Wilson's connection to Sunflower Crossing has come to light.
On the advice of her lawyer, Jen Searle called The Tribune, frustrated that Destination Homes hasn't fixed the faulty flashing around a window that has allowed water to repeatedly ruin blinds, the windowsill and the surrounding drywall.
"I know I'm not the only one who has chronic leakage problems," she said.
Searle had a somewhat testy exchange with Wilson, though in the end Wilson agrees that she has a legitimate problem that is structural in nature. A senior member of his team visited Searle and they are working on a solution. Wilson said he believes a couple more units have similar issues, so he's sending a letter to everyone who lives at Sunflower Crossing to gauge the scope of the problem.
Wilson said he was angry that Searle would attempt "to use my position in the Legislature to intimidate us into doing work. We were already going to do it."
The lawmaker said he has no other projects in Draper and none near the new prison site in Salt Lake City. Nor does he benefit from any insider information as a lawmaker, he said, because his company buys land that is publicly listed through Realtors. He's currently contemplating a development in the fast-growing Lehi area.
As an offshoot of the prison debate, Wilson and Stevenson are expected to lead a group studying how to develop the Point of the Mountain area with an eye toward a high-tech business corridor and dense housing that would stretch from Draper to Lehi.