The Kane County Commission on September 24 gave up any claim to a section of road across private land that provides access to a popular section of state trust lands that was planned to be auctioned off in October. The sale has now been delayed until mid-May or June.

The State Institutional and Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) wants $2.515 million for a 503-acre parcel in a location known as Sugar Knoll, located just east of Mount Carmel. The recreational area of slot canyons, caves and sandstone formations, including one known as “Elk Heart,” is popular with county residents and visitors who get permission from landowners who control access with a locked gate.

The three commissioners, in a unanimous vote, declared the county had no legal authority over the small section of road. The decision came after listening to roads supervisor Lou Pratt. He claimed that a thorough investigation of the road’s ownership, including maps, histories and affidavits, found no evidence for county ownership.

“The county does not have a legitimate claim,” Pratt told the commission.

Commissioner Dirk Clayson agreed. He said there is no evidence that the road is open to the public.

The decision throws a wrench into SITLA’s negotiations to sell the land. They were hoping that if the county did have ownership of the road, it could provide access without permission from the owners.

SITLA is the state agency mandated to maximize revenues from development or sale of seven million acres of trust lands granted to Utah when it joined the Union in 1896.

A news release from SITLA announced a postponement of the auction until mid-May or June 2019, emphasizing, “The decision to sell trust lands hinges largely on market forces and whether projected earnings from investment of the beneficiaries permanent funds will be comparatively stronger than proceeds derived from retaining lands for leasing.”

The permanent trust account, managed by the School and Institutional Trust Fund Office (SITFO), has grown since 1994 when the Legislature created SITLA to about $2.5 billion, with interest and dividends from the fund divvied out to schools based on need.

According to the news release from SITLA, about $74 million was distributed to Utah schools for grades K-12 this year, with Kane County receiving $287,111 and more than $1.2 million over the past six years.

The Oct. 24 auction, at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City, will still offer 14 other properties for sale.

A letter sent by SITLA deputy director Kim Christy to the commission on Monday emphasized the importance of county road ownership to the sale of the Sugar Knoll parcel.

“As with any SITLA property, access to this property is critical to its management. We urge the county to maintain the current public county road designation on these roads,” Christy wrote.

But the county listing on the roads, K2765/KCR 724, will now be deleted from maps.

Ron Torgerson, a resource specialist and deputy director of SITLA who attended the meeting, said afterwards that the agency is disappointed with the county’s decision, but will continue to work with possible buyers for a solution to the access issue.

Citing ongoing financial negotiations involving real estate, Torgerson declined to named any possible buyers of the parcel, which still needs to complete an archaeological survey.

Art Tait, one of the private property owners, was pleased with the decision, as were other family members and community members who have enjoyed the scenic area for generations.

Susan Bingham, who earlier organized a public meeting at her Mount Carmel art gallery in opposition to the proposed auction, thought the county was correct in no longer pursuing ownership of the road. “The resolution was a good one,” she said of the county’s decision.

She said that SITLA was “gracious” in its dealings with her opposition on the one hand, but has criticized the agency for its lack of transparency on who the potential buyer is.

SITLA insists that trust lands are not the same as public lands, like the BLM or U.S. Forest Service that operate under a multiple-use mandate that includes recreation. While the public can enjoy access to many SITLA properties, it is not under the same management obligations as federal agencies.

Commissioner Clayson said that the county will still work to see if the access issue can be resolved in the future through land swaps with the BLM, which owns much of the surrounding property, or with state parks or a possible community organization purchase.

Commissioner Lamont Smith said that the Sugar Knoll area has become an “icon” and special place. “Ask anybody in the valley and they will be happy the roads have been withdrawn.”

Jessica Tait, a member of the family that owns the property, said after the meeting that Monday’s victory is no excuse to become complacent. “The community still needs to be active in keeping the [proposed sale] on the shelf so we don’t find ourselves in the same position next year,” she said.