Town of Bluff considers request to disconnect 9,500 acres of land on north and west of town
by David Boyle
Members of the Bluff Town Council held a public hearing on August 15 regarding a petition to disconnect 9,500 acres from the Town of Bluff.
Members of the town council heard from legal representation from private land owners, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), the Episcopal Church of Navajoland, and members of the public over the course of a two-hour public hearing.
The council is still receiving written public comments on the proposed disconnect through August 29. However, the Bluff Town Council now has 45 days from August 15 to make a ruling on the petition to disconnect.
The petition to disconnect from the town is the third time that the town received a petition from a client represented by Salt Lake City attorney Bruce Baird.
In 2018, shortly after the Town of Bluff was incorporated, the town received a petition to disconnect nearly 400 acres of private land located at the edge of the boundaries of the town along Comb Ridge.
Baird laid out the reasoning for the request in a letter that included a warning that failure to comply with the request could result in costly litigation.
More than a dozen residents voiced opposition to the request at a public hearing, but the disconnect was approved by the council. The approved ordinance noted council opposition to the decision.
In July of 2022, the Town of Bluff received a letter from Baird representing an owner of an undeveloped 640-acre parcel of land on the Bluff Bench located in the northwest portion of the town boundaries.
In December 2022, a public hearing was held for the disconnect, with members of the public and representatives of the land owner weighing in on the issue.
At the January 10 meeting of the Bluff Town Council, members of the council voted unanimously to deny the petition to disconnect the land.
The council noted 11 findings with its resolution to not disconnect, key among them being that the disconnection would create an island of disconnected property surrounded by connected property.
Following the council decision, another petition came from the owners of the same property, now Eric and Ida Acton. The latest request to disconnect submitted by Baird also includes an additional 8,860 acres located north and west of currently developed areas of Bluff.
The 9,514 acres listed in the petition include the 640 acres of private property owned by the Actons, 7,370 acres owned by School and Insturional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), 1,338 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and 166 acres of St. Christopher’s Mission, operated by the Episcopal Church of Navajoland.
The August 15 hearing began with a brief overview of a 31-page staff report regarding the petition. City manager Erin Nelson provided the overview, noting that the 9,500 acres represent 40 percent of Bluff’s total incorporated boundaries.
The report included an outline of provided town services, including road maintenance of the class C road as well as the highways connecting to the property as well as wildland fire protection insurance, and other listed services.
The report also includes factors the town should consider in their decision-making process, according to Utah code. Among those factors include whether “Justice and equity” require the disconnection, the viability of the disconnection, and other factors.
The staff report also included a letter from the Episcopal Church of Navajoland. While St. Christopher’s Mission is included in the disconnect petition, the letter stated they do not wish to be de-annexed and even oppose the disconnect in general
Speaking first at the public hearing was petition legal counsel Bruce Baird.
Baird spent a half hour rebutting the staff report. Baird shared that while Bluff has one of the 10 largest boundaries of a town in Utah it is simultaneously in the bottom 30 towns for population. Baird concluding that Bluff is the lowest density municipality in Utah.
“You built in a little buffer around your town and the buffer wants out. The law is very clear that undeveloped land (...) is sort of like a child who’s 14 years old in a divorce situation and pretty much gets to determine where it wants to live.”
Baird also noted that while the petition had originally included St. Christopher’s mission, the petitioners have no desire to annex the mission if it wishes to stay in town.
While leaving St. Christopher’s within Bluff limits would create a peninsula shape, Baird argued that the shape would leave no difficulty for the town to provide services to the mission as the highway runs right by it. Baird concluded asking that the town approve the disconnect without the mission or with the mission with intention to annex the property back into the town. Baird added he was confident a court case would rule against the town if they denied the annexation and warned that could come at a steep financial cost.
Also speaking at the meeting was SITLA area manager Brian Torgerson. Torgerson said that while SITLA has worked with the town in the past a proposal for a solar farm on the Bluff bench has been slowed by the town of Bluff.
SITLA legal counsel Keli Beard added that SITLA had previously asked not to be zoned A1 in order to move the project forward “SITLA has low confidence that coming to you for a zoning change would be an effective strategy to help this project move forward.”
Beard also noted that if the disconnect does not go forward SITLA plans to move forward with their statutory process which means the solar farm project would move forward without a conditional use permit if needed.
While the private landowners and SITLA representatives are on board with the disconnect, several representatives from the Episcopal Church of Navajoland spoke against the disconnect. Reverend Leon Sampson shared concerns about the possible impacts of development on the area aquifer. Noting the aquifer serves people in Bluff, on the Navajo Nation and even the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe at White Mesa.
Bishop Barry Beisner also spoke against the disconnect, quoting from a letter he wrote to the town of Bluff. “We can easily imagine how disconnection might open the door to another such attempt to gain permission to bore holes through the aquifer, putting an essential water resource at risk. That resource has been enjoyed and relied upon by St. Christopher’s and the wider community for many decades; if it were to be compromised by extraction activities on the property in question, it could be lost forever as a source of reliably clean water.”
Over a dozen Bluff community members also spoke out against the disconnect. Among them was Bluff resident Josh Ewing. While Ewing noted he had many disputes with Baird’s comments he focused on the town’s willingness to come to collaborative solutions. Ewing rebutted the notion that the town of Bluff was not willing to work with SITLA on the solar development, saying there was never a zoning request by the petitioners nor notice by the group of expansion of gravel mining.
“When UDOT said they wanted to develop in the backyard what did we do? We paid for a geologist to go out and find an alternative which is now in use and producing valuable gravel. When the Guymon property wanted to develop we said we will help raise the money and we raised $2.1 million to buy that from the Guymon family. When the Bluff river trail, we went to the BLM and said we want to work with you, we spent 20 years working with BLM to make the Bluff River trail happen. When Bluff Dwelling said we want to develop on SITLA property we said sure we’ll work on that. We’ll work with a business owner in Bluff.“
Also speaking at the hearing was Bluff property owner Tamara Desrosier. She spoke of the importance of being a good neighbor, sharing that developing property outside of town boundaries could eventually lead Bluff towards becoming more like Moab.
“Good neighbors work together to financially support their community, our world class viewscapes, our watershed, roads, water system, planning and zoning, a healthy economy, quality of life”
In rebuttal, Baird shared that he only heard one substantive concern brought up during public comments, and that related to water.
“The water issue is not in the control of Bluff. Water rights in Utah are regulated by the state engineer’s office which grants drilling permits if people have valid water rights. It’s regulated by the Division of water rights, regulated by the environmental protection agency. The only way you have authority over water is to use it as an excuse to deny a development right. That’s what you’re here to do.”
Torgerson thanked the community for their input and also spoke to the issues raised about water quality. Noting that SITLA works closely with the division of water rights on their projects.
“Aquifer and water rights and protection of water is very important to us as it is to you. Whatever we do, they are the regulators, they have the science and the background to manage that and we just go with whatever recommendations they say, whatever development project that it is.”
Torgerson also offered a response that SITLA has engaged the community before on projects including conditions and deed restrictions for the selling of the property with the Navajo Twin rocks, as well as property near Comb ridge.
When asked about planned development for the Bluff area Torgerson shared that SITLA has two potential projects one being the solar farm on the bench, and the other being advertised for a 40-acre parcel in town.
“There are no back door deals going on, there are no side deals going on, those are the only two deals in the works.”
Baird shared that his clients the Actons don’t have a plan for their 640-acre parcel at the moment.
“They just don’t want to have to come here and listen to people telling them what they can’t do. They have a right to do that.”
Baird also repeated a question he’s heard: why would someone pay his attorney’s fees “if they don’t have malevolent plans? They don’t want to be in your town, that’s it. They want the same freedoms to develop their property.”
Bluff town council will receive written public comments on the proposed disconnect through August 29. Council has 45 days from August 15 to make a ruling on the petition to disconnect.