Summit County to acquire largest open space in its history for $55 million (2024)

PARK CITY — The 910 Cattle Ranch could have been developed into 116 luxury houses. The lush valley could have been clear cut to make room for a golf course, winding canyon roads, and even a small ski resort. After over a decade of negotiation, however, Summit County has received the funding it needed to purchase the land outright for $55 million.

This is the largest open space purchase in county history, and it will connect a 52,000-acre corridor of conservation easem*nts, state parks, National Forest and other protected land.

"It's the most impactful thing I will probably ever do in my career," Jess Kirby said. She's the Summit County lands and natural resources director and played a role in the acquisition.

Twenty years ago, the sprawling 8,588-acre property in the western part of the county — one of the last contiguous single-owner mountain ranches in the Snyderville Basin — was in the beginning stages of large-scale development.

Its owner, David Bernolfo, had commissioned aerial surveys, costing tens of thousands of dollars, to map the rugged terrain. He had employed lawyers and real estate consultants to put together a land use and development rights application, aiming to find the maximum price the land could be sold to someone interested in building it out.

Summit County to acquire largest open space in its history for $55 million (1)

But Bernolfo, now 80-years-old, was not like other real estate investors. He lives and works the property, which is bigger than the entire city of Millcreek, and was intending to donate the proceeds of the sale to his charitable foundation.

That plan fell apart after Summit County amended its development code in the early 2000s, reducing the possible number of units on the property. Bernolfo sued the law firm and the real estate group he was working with, alleging they were negligent in protecting the land's vested development rights, according to court documents. He walked away with $12.8 million.

At the time of the lawsuit in 2013, Bernolfo's lawyer, Michael Mihm, said in a press release, "It is the single largest piece of developable private property in the area," but "after losing 40% of the density rights, it no longer makes financial sense to develop the property."

This loss has become the gain of nearby residents. On Aug. 24, 2023, the County Council held a special meeting, on short notice, to consider the approval of an exclusive option agreement to purchase the ranch, located just north of Jeremy Ranch, for $55 million.

"We have been working since 2017 to buy this property," said Councilman Chris Robinson, calling it a "very rare opportunity."

"There's an old saying that the opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity," he said.

"As we see the county grow and develop, these wild areas are going away," said Roger Armstrong, Summit County Council chairman. "This is beyond anything that I imagined would be possible, and it's taken so long."

Summit County to acquire largest open space in its history for $55 million (2)

The deal itself was a strange one, according to Robinson, as it was worked backward to accommodate buying the property from Bernolfo's charitable foundation. The council approved a nonrefundable $15 million payment to reserve the option to buy the property for an additional $40 million. That option was set to expire in August 2026.

The downpayment came from a General Obligation Bond for open space that Summit County voters passed in 2021. A $60,000-per-year lease agreement during the interim period was included in the deal, with 50% of the payment going toward the purchase price.

A whopping 4.5% interest payment was also in the contract, which meant $1.8 million a year would be going to Bernolfo — that doesn't contribute to the price of the property — until the county found the funding to purchase the land outright.

Another wrinkle — 1,800 acres of the ranch are in Morgan County.

At the meeting in 2023, most residents voiced strong support for the option agreement and expressed hopes that the county undertake careful and studied "landscape-scale preservation," so the wilderness is not "loved to death."

Summit County to acquire largest open space in its history for $55 million (3)

Leslie Miller, Bernolfo's partner, said, "It's more than just open space; it is vital habitat that could become the crown jewel of Summit County."

"I am very painfully aware of the care with which we need to tread," Robinson said, "in trying to make sure we don't screw it up by over-loving it or over-programming it."

The contract was signed the next day, triggering a search for funding. Kirby said it caused many sleepless nights with the amount of money on the line.

It wasn't until Monday, May 13, the county learned it had been given a $40 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service and could breathe a sigh of relief. Kirby says the funds probably won't arrive until the summer of 2025, so the county will be paying the lease and interest until then.

The vision for the property is slowly coming together. In the contract, the county listed possible uses including running, biking, fishing, nordic and skate skiing, camping, livestock grazing and selective timber harvesting. As a foundational condition of the deal, however, hunting will never be allowed.

But much will need to be done before the public is allowed to enjoy the paradise. The ranch will be managed as a wildlife sanctuary. A baseline conservation plan should be done by August to understand what maintenance the forests and riparian areas need.

The 5 miles of creek are currently not a sustainable recreation fishery due to lack of vegetation and gravel bars, Kirby said. Part of the grant funding, however, aims to reestablish the Bonneville Cutthroat Trout in the area. Studies on the hundreds of elk and moose will need to be done, and serious weed and fire management plans in place.

"We really need to do this right," Kirby said.

Until at least 2025, the land will be closed to the public, though several restoration and habitat improvement projects are happening this summer. Volunteers and the Summit  County Sheriff's mounted posse and deputies will be patrolling the area, alert to poaching and trespassing.

Bernolfo, who did not respond to requests for comment, retains access to his residence until the grant money comes through and the purchase is finalized.

Summit County to acquire largest open space in its history for $55 million (2024)
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