Public expresses outrage at Springdale meeting about possible Dixie State-Zion Canyon Mesa land swap

ST. GEORGE — Public outrage was expressed at a town meeting in Springdale Thursday evening discussing a proposed land swap between Dixie State University and the Zion Canyon Mesa.

The meeting was organized by Mark Chambers in hopes of gathering more information about the proposal after the public was first made aware of it at a Town Council meeting Oct. 9. 

Board members of Zion Canyon Mesa and Springdale council members shared what little information they have regarding the proposal, though many of the public’s questions could only be answered by a DSU representative, none of whom were available to attend Thursday’s meeting. 

DSU currently owns around 90 acres of land bordering Springdale and Zion National Park. Zion Canyon Mesa owns about 25 acres of property between Springdale and the DSU property. 

Zion Canyon Mesa is an artist retreat that will allow two visual artists and six writers to stay at its facilities, including free food and lodging, for up to two months at a time while they work on a specific project. 

The Mesa is currently working to complete construction on two duplexes and a commons building on its property and plans to begin hosting writers next spring, Zion Canyon Mesa Chair Linda Newell said. 

Zion Canyon Mesa Chair Linda Newell speaks at a public meeting in Springdale, Utah, Oct. 17, 2019 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

Zion Canyon Mesa board member Louise Excell said they were recently approached by DSU with a proposal that the Mesa sell their property to the state so that DSU could lease the property to a developer and possibly build a 100-unit hotel and restaurant with the intent of starting a hospitality degree program and allowing students to run the facility. The university would also build student housing and refurbish the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater. 

DSU spokesperson Stacy Schmidt told St. George News that the university is still in very early discussion stages regarding the possible addition of a hospitality program and that no final decisions have been made. 

“Dixie State University is preliminarily exploring several options to enhance the DSU-owned O.C. Tanner property in Springdale,” she said. “One option includes developing a hospitality program in partnership with Springdale to provide active learning opportunities for our students. While brainstorming about this option, the possibility of developing a hotel for students to learn the ins and outs of the hospitality industry was discussed.”

In exchange for the proposed property swap, Excell said that DSU President Richard Williams and Provost Michael Lacourse offered to relocate Zion Canyon Mesa to the back side of DSU’s currently-owned 90-acre property, pay to build the facilities for their artist retreat and provide food and cleaning services for them as part of the hospitality program. 

“They would relocate the Mesa to the back, actually more gorgeous, property. It’s secluded, it’s heavily vegetated with juniper, pinion; it’s gorgeous back there, the property that they have. The property that they would have to decimate to create their development,” Excell said. “They also had suggested that there would be a lot of amenities for the Mesa, that we could not only move to a more secluded perfect location for a writers and artists retreat, but they would pay for it.”

A concept sketch of the plans for the Zion Canyon Mesa in Springdale, Utah | Image courtesy of Zion Canyon Mesa, St. George News

Currently, because DSU’s property is owned by the state, it is not required to comply with Spirngdale’s building ordinances. If Zion Canyon Mesa were to sell its property to the state, anyone who built on it would also be exempt from complying with Springdale’s ordinances, which caused a great deal of concern among residents at Thursday’s meeting. 

Because they are a state entity, if they decide to build the hotel, DSU will be required to hold a request for proposal for the project before moving forward with a developer. Excell said that DSU has asked Zion Canyon Mesa if they would like to be included in the request for proposal. 

The Zion Canyon Mesa board is meeting Saturday to discuss the pros and cons of the land swap and will vote on whether they want to be included in the RFP at a later time after all board members have been fully informed of the issue. 

Two members of the board who are also DSU deans will recuse themselves from the vote. 

Some of the board members of the Mesa fear that if the hotel is built, it will negatively impact their retreat regardless of which property it is built on.

“In my opinion, if the Mesa says, ‘No, we don’t want to play,’ the development behind us will destroy the Mesa, it will make it impossible to have the kind of serenity and seclusion that an artists and writers retreat is all about. It would be devastating. I don’t know if The Mesa could stay,” Excell said. 

Board member Logan Hebner said the board has been given a difficult decision, since either way, he is concerned that the presence of a hotel in such close proximity will hurt the retreat. 

Springdale town councilman Mike Alltucker speaks at a public meeting in Springdale, Utah, Oct. 17, 2019 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

“My perception of what happens up there is that any development up there is going to deeply affect us, even if we swap properties. Then all of a sudden underneath us we’ll have traffic for 100 units, for employees, for restaurants, for delivery trucks, garbage, and that will essentially, in my opinion, really impede our ability to act as an honest retreat,” he said. 

Newell said she feels strongly that Zion Canyon Mesa belongs on the property that it currently owns. She is also concerned about damaging the Mesa’s relationship with the town of Springdale, as they have worked closely with them for the past few decades to make the retreat a reality while still preserving the town’s views.

“I was unprepared for the emotional impact it would have on me the first day I walked up there,” Newell said. “I was absolutely stunned. I was speechless. I just turned around and looked in every direction. And I thought, if we’re going to do this here, we’re going to be good stewards of this land.”

Council member Mike Alltucker said that Mayor Stan Smith and Town Manager Rick Wixom met with President Williams last week to discuss some of the details of the project. 

While Alltucker said the Town of Springdale has not officially taken a position on the project either way, several council members present at the meeting voiced concern about its potential impacts on the town. 

“We don’t know how it will impact the town’s infrastructure. A project of this scope has never been on anyone’s planning radar,” Alltucker said. “We want more information. We want the public to be involved in understanding this proposal. We want a full, open discussion of it.”

Councilmember Randy Aton spoke out against the land swap, voicing concern that it would not have to meet the town’s lighting standards and may cause excess light pollution, hindering their efforts to become a recognized International Dark Sky Place. 

“This thing is going to ruin the ambiance, going to ruin our ability to get this certification. It goes against our general plan, and it goes against all the things that residents over the years have wanted for this community,” Aton said. 

Schmidt said that should the university choose to move forward on its consideration of the hotel and hospitality program, they would certainly want to work with the community of Springdale to find a solution that everyone would be comfortable with. 

The location where the Zion Canyon Mesa is being built in Springdale, Utah, date not specified | Image courtesy of Zion Canyon Mesa, St. George News

“This is in the very early stages — limited to a few conversations, with nothing approaching a decision being made,” Schmidt said. “If DSU decides to move forward with exploring options for enhancing the property, we would absolutely seek the input and buy-in of the Springdale community, including their feedback on the best way to provide new opportunities to DSU students and Springdale citizens.”

After a public comment period at Thursday’s meeting, Chambers took a poll of the room to determine who was currently for and who was against the proposed land swap. Every person in the room raised their hand to indicate they were opposed to the Mesa agreeing to the swap. 

“I’ve never seen this many people in Springdale, with so many opposite points of views about everything else, united about one thing. We are united across so many boundaries,” Chambers said. 

Alltucker said that a DSU representative is supposed to attend the next Town Council meeting to provide more information and answer questions. The public is invited to attend the meeting, which will take place at 5 p.m. on Nov. 13 at the Springdale Community Center, 126 Lion Boulevard.

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