It’s called SITLA, which stands for the cumbersome bureaucratic title, “School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.” SITLA’s sole mission is to maximize profits from state-owned lands for the benefit of Utah’s K-12 schools. In Moab, that means creating a large new resort complex, dubbed “Lion’s Back,” in the heart of the Sand Flats Recreation District.
Stalled by a decade of debate and lawsuits, Lion’s Back is facing new lawsuits filed this week by local environmental groups, who are saying the local water supply would be threatened.
The situation was aggravated at a recent meeting where SITLA officials suggested that state grant money be withheld from Moab unless the town agrees to support all SITLA projects in the area. This drew a sharp response from state senator Jim Dabakis.
“When state government money, when that is dependant on the local community accepting exactly the kind of exploitation of the land that the state wants, I think that’s not just intimidation, it is a total disregard of the local people.”
The board has declined for now to withhold funds from Moab, but Dabakis still takes exception to SITLA’s single-minded mission.
“Is this going to make money, yes or no? And if it is, it doesn’t matter how annoying or inconvenient it is for local people. So while all these officials are outraged against the federal government, they’ve created a system that takes even more power away from the local people. These are not good managers of the land when it comes to preserving, protecting and defending it.”
In recent weeks the issue was already in the forefront statewide. The Utah legislature debated a bill that would have granted SITLA even more authority to ignore local laws. John Andrews is SITLA’s General Counsel and Assistant Director.
“We engage in joint ventures and leases for real estate development. From an urban development standpoint we have a lot of land in St. George, some in Cedar City, the Sarasota Springs and Eagle Mountain in Utah County, and to a lesser extent in Moab. But that’s really where our real estate development focus is.”
In fact, Utah’s official stance for years has been that local control does not apply to public lands.
“State and federal lands are not within local planning and zoning authority.”
Andrews said the long opposition to the Lion’s Back project in Moab has been one of the few cases where SITLA’s plans have encountered local resistance.
“We have, and have had for many years, a policy that we require our lessees and joint venture partners to go through the local planning and zoning process, except in exceptional circumstances. The recent situation in Moab was what we felt was one of those exceptional circumstances where we felt we needed to deviate from our regular policy. We felt that it was appropriate to raise the state law exemption as a way to try to get back to a solution.”
So as yet, SITLA can point to a record of development that has largely been welcomed by Utah communities.
“We have, with partners, developed, gosh probably well north of a billion dollars worth of real estate. All of it, a hundred percent, has gone through the local planning and zoning process. We like to be as partners with the communities where we are.”