A Solution to Overcrowded Ski Resorts: Just Buy Your Own Mountain

By Jeffrey Chmay, Staff Writer

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

         What used to be considered a fringe outdoor extreme sport has exploded in popularity, with skiers and snowboarders reaching record attendance at American ski resorts in recent years.[1] This record attendance, in conjunction with the mass commercialization of the ski industry by Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company, has resulted in mountains losing the culture that had attracted so many skiers over the decades.[2] “Gone are live bands, independent outfitters, [and] free lift-side parking . . . Skiing has fast become just another soulless, pre-packaged, mass commercial experience . . . and the new business model is attracting jet-setters and displacing ski bums.”[3]

         But perhaps even more concerning than the ski industry turning to mass commercialization and reaching a wider audience, is when “jet-setters” decide that the upscale resorts are not even enough for them and turn to a new era in skiing: privatizing your own mountain. Wasatch Peaks Ranch (WPR) is attempting to do just that. Advertised as a private golf and ski resort for the “1% of the 1%,” WPR has now successfully purchased, rezoned, and have begun full development on an exclusive golf and ski resort in northern Utah.[4] Membership starts at $500,000, not including the planned $750 million residences or annual dues.[5]

         In 2019, a group of investors purchased the land, which had been zoned as “forestry” and “multiple use” making the land unable to be developed for a ski resort.[6] But in October 2019, the Morgan County Council voted to rezone the area as a “resort special district.”[7] Five county residents felt their voices of concern to preserve the land went unheard and filed a petition for a referendum as guaranteed by the Utah Constitution.[8] While at the courthouse prior to the 5pm deadline, the clerk did not officially file the petition until 5:05pm.[9] WPR filed a lawsuit against the Morgan County clerk because of the late acceptance of the petition and in light of the lawsuit, the clerk eventually rejected the petition.[10]

         Determined to prevent the rezoning, county residents filed a lawsuit in the District Court.[11] In response, WPR filed individual $5 million lawsuits against each of the residents due to their stalling of the development of the resort.[12]But the threat of the lawsuits did not deter the residents, WPR’s lawsuits against the residents were dismissed, and in September 2023, the District Court ruled in favor of allowing a referendum.[13] Specifically, the court said that the county residents had met the required deadline in 2019, despite “aggressive” tactics by WPR to ensure that they did not.[14] And although the court granted the referendum, WPR continued to develop the land, and residents were forced to file for a preliminary injunction to halt development, which was granted in December 2023.[15] WPR immediately appealed the decision, which was supposed to send the case to the Utah Supreme Court.[16]

         But the issue will not make it to the Utah Supreme Court because in a surprise twist of events, after a one-day mediation in January 2024, county residents and WPR came to an agreement and residents dropped their petition.[17] The agreement created a conservation easement on 2,300 acres and WPR will allow access to National Forest Service land by allowing public trails over portions of its property.[18] In addition, the WPR agreed to create a foundation to “specifically benefit the residents of Morgan County,” placing $4 million into the fund to be managed by a member of the county commission, a WPR representative, and others from the community.[19]

         While some tout this as an agreement demonstrating the benefits of the legal system for parties to resolve their differences, there is reason to be concerned that this is just WPR bullying residents into complying, just like they attempted to do throughout the entire legal process. Residents’ primary concerns against the development was to prevent the town from losing its small-town charm and blue-collar nature as well as environmental concerns from the development of large resorts.[20] Residents were worried that allowing WPR to develop would give way to more resorts in future years.[21] While easements to access forest lands might be considered a win for residents, $4 million to benefit the county seems incredibly disproportionate to the cost of the resort project. But regardless of the terms, this agreement is even more suspect because the residents who were granted the referendum, were likely to receive a positive ruling from the state’s highest court, and seemingly held all the power. It is unclear what happened behind closed doors, but what we do know is that 12,700 acres of increasingly scarce forest area has been set aside solely for the use of the ultrawealthy.

[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/busiest-ski-season-ever-180980242/

[2] https://slate.com/business/2023/12/epic-versus-ikon-ski-duopoly-cost.html

[3] Id.

[4] https://www.kpcw.org/ski-resorts/2024-01-05/residents-fight-for-vote-on-ultra-exclusive-wasatch-peaks-ranch-development

[5] https://snowbrains.com/inside-the-legal-battle-between-wasatch-peaks-ranch-private-resort-and-the-residents-of-morgan-county-ut/

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] https://snowbrains.com/legal-battle-between-wasatch-peaks-ranch-private-resort-and-the-residents-of-morgan-county-ut-comes-to-an-abrupt-resolution/

[12] Id.

[13] https://snowbrains.com/inside-the-legal-battle-between-wasatch-peaks-ranch-private-resort-and-the-residents-of-morgan-county-ut/

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] https://snowbrains.com/legal-battle-between-wasatch-peaks-ranch-private-resort-and-the-residents-of-morgan-county-ut-comes-to-an-abrupt-resolution/

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] https://snowbrains.com/inside-the-legal-battle-between-wasatch-peaks-ranch-private-resort-and-the-residents-of-morgan-county-ut/

[21] Id.

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