PROVO, Utah — The Utah County Commission unanimously approved a conservation easement for Bridal Veil Falls Wednesday night, which will protect the famous falls from any future commercial or private development.
A developer wanted to build a tram near the falls and small drug treatment center at the top.
The decision came after nearly four hours of public comment from community members-- and accusations against Commissioner Bill Lee over campaign funding and alleged backdoor meetings with parties who want to develop the falls.
Looking at the beautiful flow of Bridal Veil Falls, some lately have only seen turbulent waters, as a controversy cascades into the community.
The divide ran deep as a stream of dozens gave public comment at Wednesday night's hearing, and hundreds more sent emails to the commission to voice their opinions.
Using a "point of privilege," Commissioner Bill Lee gave a statement before the start of the hearing to address the fact that many called the proposal a privatization of the falls.
"That seems to be a narrative that has been pushed around over and over, that Bridal Veil Falls is for sale," he said.
Lee continued that it's never come before them as a sale in the time he's been commissioner.
The meeting dipped into a side bar of accusations against Lee.
"There has been a group of individuals who have publicly made it known-- and it's been reported-- that they've been meeting with Commissioner Lee," said Commissioner Nathan Ivie. He said the group had, "given significant amounts of money to [Lee's] pick in opposition to Prop. 9, and significant amounts of money to my opponent who have publicly stated that they would like to lease or purchase a portion of Bridal Veil Falls."
Ivie recently lost a shot at re-election to his opponent, Tom Sakievich.
Prop. 9 would have completely changed the current, three full-time county commissioner structure to five part-time county council members serving as the legislative branch and a full-time mayor who would serve as the executive for the county.
Lee has voiced in the past that he was glad Prop. 9 failed.
Mark Allen with the American Fork Canyon Alliance doubled down on those claims during his remarks at the hearing.
He looked at Lee while saying that Lee deceived the public and took private money to defeat Prop. 9 so that he could retain a 33 percent vote.
"That's a bullsh** comment," someone in the audience said. Allen turned to them and pointed while saying, "You don't have the podium."
"The GRAMA records show a totally different story," Allen continued, referencing Lee's earlier statements about the falls not being for sale. "You've been meeting with Losee and his architects."
Lee denied the accusations right after Allen spoke, saying they were false.
After nearly 4 hours of divided, passionate public comment, the Utah County Commission is deciding the future of Bridal Veil Falls. A developer wants to build a tram and drug treatment center near the falls, but many want a conservation easement instead. @fox13 pic.twitter.com/7oG7aMZSI9— Lauren Steinbrecher (@LaurenSnews) December 10, 2020
During the public hearing, some argued in favor of looking at development around the falls, saying it could enhance the beauty of the area and turn it into a greater attraction.
They said that allowing private development wouldn't cut off public access.
Others, said they wanted the falls preserved, and to them that meant no commercial or private development whatsoever. A conservation easement, they said, would ensure Bridal Veil Falls stayed in the hands of the public.
Provo City Mayor Michelle Kaufusi read a statement during the hearing, following last week's Provo Municipal Council resolution to protect Bridal Veil Falls from any commercial or private development.
Developer Richard Losee originally wrote the proposal to Utah County, saying he was willing to pay $2.5 million for 21 acres of land to build the tram and drug treatment center on, then deed 20 of those acres back to the county.
Losee also expressed that he instead could purchase the Tram Acquisition for $1 million, or lease it for $20,000 a year, and the county could keep the rest of the land for conservation purposes.
Bruce Baird, Losee's attorney, spoke at Wednesday night's hearing and said Losee wanted to open up public access through the tram and help people enjoy the falls in a new way.
After hours of comments, commissioners spent time discussing the conservation easement. In the end, they voted 3-0 in favor of it.
In addition to approving the easement, commissioners also gave the green light to allot an additional $500,000 to upgrade the facilities at the park at the base of the falls. During the meeting, it was mentioned that those upgrades will include extending green space to view the falls, new pavilions, and trail enhancements.
This is in addition to the $1 million already set aside for beautification, trail improvements, increased safety features and installation of restrooms and other amenities.
Ivie spoke with Fox 13 after the meeting. He is the person who originally approached the county to start the process for a conservation easement.
When asked about his prior comments regarding Commissioner Lee, Ivie answered that over the last four years in office, he has lost trust in humanity and he's seen "people with money and power abuse citizens."
"Tonight, we saw people stand up as citizens for something important to them. Against power, and against money," Ivie said.
He said that they showcased that when people come together, it's still their government and their representatives will listen and respond to them.
"It proves there are some things that can't be bought through campaign donations. And we've made, sent that message loud and clear," he said.
Ivie got emotional as he talked about what has now become one of the last issues he will take up for before leaving office at the end of the month.
"I care so much about conservation of our natural resources, and to see and know that my legislative act protects this beautiful icon forever, it's... I'm just thrilled," he said, wiping tears from his eyes.
Ivie said a conservation easement for Bridal Veil Falls wasn't even on his radar until two weeks ago, when he explained some concerned citizens reached out to him.
Two weeks later, the fate of the falls has been decided forever.
"It's wonderful because I deeply care about preserving the way of life that I've enjoyed in Utah, and preserving our natural landscapes," he said, adding, "And tonight, we protected one of the most precious forever."