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A controversial vision to recast Salt Lake City's desolate western flank as a "mini-city" is either on hold or about to get a jolt.
Kennecott Utah Copper has acquired the undeveloped but coveted swath of land known as the Northwest Quadrant in a swap with the real-estate arm of the LDS Church.
The mining giant says it has "no current development plans" for the acreage west of the Salt Lake City International Airport a migratory bird haven that hugs portions of the Great Salt Lake.
Environmental leaders applaud the move, saying it bolsters their goal of seeing solar fields rather than rows of houses. This sun energy could "immediately" benefit Kennecott and a burgeoning Wasatch Front.
The deal, in the works for two years and confirmed by both parties Monday, gives Kennecott more than 3,100 acres, long owned by the church's Property Reserve Inc., in exchange for an unspecified number of acres in southwestern Salt Lake County.
The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has "no current plans for the development of that land," according to Carl Duke, vice president of PRI's subsidiary, Suburban Land Reserve.
Kennecott, owned by Rio Tinto, paid "cash considerations" in the deal but also received land along the west side of Salt Lake County. The company intends to use 14 acres, south of Interstate 80, to relocate a portion of the Union Pacific Railroad "for the proposed expansion of the existing tailings impoundment to the northeast," according to Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett.
Plans to erect a "mini-city" west of the international airport have been contentious for years, raising the ire of some City Council members and the environmental community.
Mayor Ralph Becker has been receptive to studies gauging the sensitivity of the quadrant. But the mayor has stopped short of endorsing the so-called Northwest Quadrant Master Plan.
"Salt Lake City does not know the details of the land transaction between Property Reserve Inc. and Kennecott," Becker's communications director, Karen Hale, said in a statement. "We will continue to advocate that any future development of land within the Northwest Quadrant is consistent with the shared values and goals of our residents."
The draft master plan includes housing for 70,000 to 100,000 people spread across the brownfields and marshlands between the airport and the Oquirrh Mountains. It also calls for two urban centers, transit connections and a potential university.
So, with Kennecott now in charge, could this sprawling swath become Daybreak North?
Bennett repeats the company line that there are no current development plans. "Right now, that property is going to remain just how it is," he said. "But we are committed to meet with all the relevant stakeholders before any plans are created."
In a statement, Kennecott says it understands that the Northwest Quadrant "has environmental sensitivity and high ecological value."
Councilman Luke Garrott, who opposes developing that area, sees the land trade as "positive" but says there are plenty of unanswered questions. "Since the city had been in the mind-set of accommodating the property owners out there, we'll see if the shift in landowners shifts the mind-set of the administration," he said. "It really hinges on the zoning."
Garrott argues suburban development is not in the city's best interest and highly risky to taxpayers. "It's easy to take them at their word that there is no plan for development but we're talking about geologic time. It's really important that we do establish what the future land use is going to be."
Deeda Seed, a former city councilwoman and vocal opponent of developing the city's northwest tip, says the transfer "could be fabulous."
"From the perspective of those of us who want to see a robust, open-space buffer adjacent to that bird habitat, this is a really good thing," Seed said. "A mini-city attached to the real city does not make any sense from an environmental standpoint, from a taxpayer standpoint. We should be concentrating on infill development."
But why do environmentalists deem a mining company, deeply rooted in residential development, a more likely ally than the LDS Church?
"Admittedly, the evidence is not compelling," environmental activist Ed Firmage Jr. said. "I suspect they do view it as a way to smooth the waters with the environmental community who is very upset with them over the mine expansion."
Firmage says the LDS Church was "frustrated" by theinability to make a return on its sprawling investment. He says the housing market makes it too risky to develop, so he hopes to see an easement or the like to protect the land as open space.
In the interim, Firmage will continue his crusade to see solar panels rather than suburbia west of the airport. And he wants Kennecott to use federal incentives to pay for it.
"Kennecott is itself a huge user of electricity," he said. "They could do it entirely themselves and benefit significantly from that investment immediately."
Bennett declined to address whether an open-space agreement or anything else could be brokered with the city.
For years, Garrott and Councilman Soren Simonsen have publicly criticized the Northwest Quadrant Master Plan. They also have questioned why Becker would not reject outright such a development blueprint.
The mayor has countered that the land is privately owned.
Most of the quadrant has been owned by the LDS Church for decades, once serving as a welfare-era farm during the Great Depression. Duke, with the LDS Church's real-estate arm, notes PRI now holds 2,000 acres there, 1,000 of which is the city's former landfill.
So why unload the property now? The soft real estate market? The environmental controversy?
Duke would not say.
West-side land swap
Kennecott Utah Copper acquires 3,100 acres along the west edge of the Salt Lake Valley from the LDS Church in exchange for an unspecified number of acres in southwestern Salt Lake County.
The mining giant plans to use 14 acres south of Interstate 80 to relocate a portion of the Union Pacific Railroad "for the proposed expansion of the existing tailings impoundment to the northeast."
Kennecott says it has "no current development plans" for the environmentally sensitive acreage hugging the Great Salt Lake known as the Northwest Quadrant.
Property Reserve Inc., the real-estate investment arm of the LDS Church, says it has "no current plans for the development" of the land it acquired in the southwest portion of the valley.