Despite considerable objection from residents, commercial project near New Harmony moves forward

ST. GEORGE — A proposed commercial development set across from the Kolob Canyons entry into Zion National Park on Interstate 15 moved forward Tuesday despite the objections of nearby New Harmony residents.

Residents of New Harmony packed a meeting of the Washington County Planning Commission to voice their objection to the proposed commercial project at Exit 40, St. George, Utah, Nov. 12, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Located on the west side of the Exit 40 interchange on I-15, the Kolob Commercial Center is slated to be a gateway to Washington County for those traveling south, as well as serving visitors to the back end of Zion National Park.

Facets of the project include a hotel, a convenience store/gas station, restaurants and a RV park and camp site facility, according the project’s concept development plan.

The Washington County Planning Commission unanimously approved forwarding a recommendation to the County Commission to approve the project’s concept site plan along with a requested zone change for the area from agricultural to commercial use.

The recommendation was met with disapproval from New Harmony residents who brought various concerns to a public hearing held during the Planning Commission’s Tuesday meeting.

Prior to the public hearing, Scott Messel, the county’s community development director, said staff had reviewed the project’s plans and recommended them for approval.

A concept layout of the proposed Kolob Commercial Center developers want to build by the Exit 40 interchange on I-15 near New Harmony. | Graphic courtesy of Washington County, St. George News

“The project is consistent with (the county’s) general plan,” Messel said, adding it also matches the desired practice of building commercial developments around highway interchanges.

Members of the Planning Commission, including Mark Owen, took issue with the possibility that a four-story hotel was proposed for the project, which would raise the building to 55 feet. County code limits buildings to 35 feet unless a variance is granted.

The greater height brought on concerns about light pollution and particularly whether the local fire agency, a volunteer special service district with limited manpower and equipment, could adequately respond to an emergency for such a large building.

“We’re not prepared for anything like this,” said David Osborne, a member of the New Harmony Fire District.

The fire district has an average 10 active volunteers, Osborne said, adding that the majority of those firefighters are also over 55 years old.

A New Harmony residents voices his objection to the proposed commercial project at Exit 40 during a public hearing hosted by the Washington County Planning Commission, St. George, Utah, Nov. 12, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

A building over two stories tall would also require a ladder truck, which New Harmony doesn’t have. The nearest ladder truck, as well as ambulance service, is in Cedar City to the north and Leeds to the south.

Because of this concern, the Planning Commission kept any buildings in the project to two stories as a condition of its favorable recommendation.

Another concern voiced by several New Harmony residents was whether the project was commercially sustainable or if, once built, they’d be left with a little-used and empty cluster of buildings on their community’s doorstep.

The developers, Juniper Investors, LLC, claim 500,000 people visit Zion National Park through the Kolob Canyons area. New Harmony residents disputed that, saying it is far less.

Multiple residents said businesses along I-15 between Cedar City and the St. George area, which primarily consist of gas stations and diners, are rarely patronized by large crowds and never full.

Residents of New Harmony packed a meeting of the Washington County Planning Commission to voice their objection to the proposed commercial project at Exit 40, St. George, Utah, Nov. 12, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“This project is overwhelming,” one woman said. “It’s like putting a Nordstroms in Beryl.”

Among other items residents raised were worries over traffic, crime, light pollution, water contamination from septic systems used by the RV park, the type of people who would stay at the RV park and if the town had enough infrastructure for the project.

Planning Commissioner Doug Solstad said that, as far as the water issue was concerned, developers had stated the Utah Department of Environmental Quality would be regulating that part of their project. Local maintenance of the system would be handled by the Ash Creek Special Services District.

New Harmony residents weren’t the only ones with concerns about the project. Developers also met with Zion National Park staff, who had worries about additional visitation to the often packed park. However, developers said the park management was largely impartial toward the project.

At one point during the meeting, a planning commissioner asked the assembled residents what they would like to see at Exit 40 instead of a commercial development. The loud, overwhelming response favored more homes.

Members of the Washington County Planning Commission, St. George, Utah, Nov. 12, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Several years ago, the same area was slated to become an equestrian center; however, Stephen Swindle of Juniper Investors said that didn’t pan out. Now the group wants to build a commercial center there instead.

“We’ve worked closely with the (county) staff, and we’ve tried to design and hopefully build a really beautiful gateway project coming into Washington County,” Swindle said during the meeting. “We want to develop on this property a meaningful, responsible and beautiful project.”

Following the meeting, Swindle said what is being proposed is still in the conceptual phase and hasn’t been finalized yet.

With the Planning Commission’s favorable recommendation, the Kolob Commercial Center project’s conceptual site plan and zone change request moves to the Washington County Commission for approval.

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