While it will be years before skiers can soar through the skies of Little Cottonwood Canyon in a taxpayer-funded gondola, the Utah Department of Transportation must work out numerous land deals to make the controversial gondola a reality.
While much of the land needed to build the 22 proposed towers in the canyon is owned by the federal government and will require a humpback field of bureaucracy to transfer, one of Utah’s most influential institutions also owns land that the state must build the massive Elevator – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
According to plans in UDOT’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — released in August — a tower for the proposed nacelle would stand directly beneath the church’s secret Granite Mountain Records Vault.
The facility houses “the world’s largest collection of genealogical records” and was built in 1965 to protect important records for the Church, according to the LDS Church website.
The nacelle tower would be located between the canyon roadway and a parking lot for the Granite Mountain Records Vault, potentially allowing nacelle drivers an aerial view of the facility’s entrance. The tower would be 164 feet tall and would require a quarter-acre of land.
Another UDOT record indicates that 5.39 acres of church land could be affected by aerial easement, showing how much impact a nacelle tower could have on church property. An air easement is an arrangement where a property owner would retain the land themselves but another entity such as UDOT would have access to the area over the land. The ice details how far the air easements would extend.
In other words, gondola cables and automobiles would soar over 5.39 acres of Church land as long as the Church agrees with current plans.
A LDS Church spokesman declined to comment on a possible land sale to the state or whether he would agree to an aerial easement.
Other faith-based organizations in Utah, such as the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, have opposed the project.
In September, Jean Hill – director of the Catholic Diocese’s Office for Life, Justice and Peace – told Fox 13: “The gondola is not an option for the poor and using this kind of government funding, for an option that benefits nobody, low income strikes us as a pretty bad use of taxpayer money.”
The local Catholic diocese also encouraged Catholics to comment on the proposal during UDOT’s public comment period, according to Fox 13.
Little Cottonwood Canyon is a special place for the LDS Church, when the stones that built the Salt Lake Temple were cut near the mouth of the canyon. Beginning in the 1860s, large wagons and oxen — and later trains — transported blocks of granite from Little Cottonwood to what is now Temple Square, the church says.
And the LDS Church isn’t the only mogul that UDOT has to navigate.
US Forest Service
The largest owner of land for potential nacelle towers is the federal government, as much of the canyon is part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and is maintained by the US Forest Service.
According to a property impact list in the EIS draft, the federal government owns 4,698 acres of land on which to build the stations and towers of the proposed nacelle.
In all, the gondola would require 22 towers and three charging stations — one at the mouth of the gorge and stations at Snowbird and Alta ski areas. The UDOT plans also provide for two angle stations that turn the direction of gondola cars.
Months before UDOT published its decision, Snowbird quietly purchased two lots totaling 4.86 acres that would house the “Gondola Alternative B” base station and a 2,500-space parking garage. Snowbird bought the land in hopes of making the gondola viable as an option for the canyon.
Lance Kovel, a special projects coordinator at the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said the forest service has been familiar with UDOT for several years.
“UDOT engaged us essentially early in their EIS process,” Kovel told The Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s why we have been closely associated with (UDOT) since 2018 and mainly coordinate this project on a weekly basis.”
Kovel, who is also the UDOT liaison for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said the forest service incorporated their analysis and concerns into the draft EIS, which the forest service needs before making land-use decisions.
He added that currently, “Forest Service currently sees nothing that would prevent us from issuing a special use permit.”
However, Kovel noted that the forest service, like UDOT, is still in the process of reviewing public comments, and those comments may require additional analysis or study.
UDOT could purchase the land directly or agree to an easement or special use permit. In any case, the process must be approved by the federal government.
“With an easement or special use permit, the USDA Forest Service would retain all title to the land and UDOT would be entitled to own and operate the selected alternative,” the draft EIS reads.
How UDOT was able to acquire Gondelland
In written statements, Josh Van Jura, the project manager for the Little Cottonwood EIS, said the nacelle project must first be funded before land acquisition can begin.
The project – which is estimated to cost taxpayers $500 million – has many critics who don’t want it built, but the nacelle has the backing of the person who would ultimately approve it, Governor Spencer Cox.
In October, Cox said he supported the idea of a gondola through the 8-mile gorge, although state legislatures would have to decide whether or not to fund the project. If that’s the case, UDOT has options.
The department can acquire property in a number of ways. One possibility is temporary building easements, which Van Jura says are essentially renting a piece of land during construction.
Another acquisition option is a perpetual easement, where a landowner still owns their land, but UDOT would have long-term rights to access and use the land. UDOT can also buy a property outright, which is known as a full-fee acquisition.
UDOT also has a final way of getting land, although it is the most controversial – the state can acquire property in eminent domains where the government has an opportunity to take over land for fair compensation. However, that’s not an option UDOT wants to rely on.
“Eminent Domain is always the last resort,” Van Jura told The Tribune.
UDOT must also make arrangements with landowners for flight easements to ensure the gondola cars can legally soar through the canyon sky.
After releasing the August draft, UDOT opened a public comment period that lasted 45 days. During that time, the department received thousands of comments, which have since been published.
UDOT’s Little Cottonwood Canyon EIS website says those working on the project are reviewing these comments.
After their review, the state will provide a decision record concluding its recommendation on how best to address transportation issues in the canyon.
This decision is scheduled to be released by the end of the Utah ski season.
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