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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Tourism resort development has created a political tug of war in a small southern Utah town

A photo of a town sign to Virgin, Utah.
Lexi Peery
Virgin is a small town in southern Utah with just over 500 registered voters. Debates over where resort zoning should go have led to nine referendums being filed in the last four years.

To get to the main entrance of Zion National Park, travelers often take state Route 9 and pass through the town of Virgin. It’s situated among stunning mesas and cliffs and the Virgin River that gives the town its name.

Jared Westhoff recently opened Zion Weeping Buffalo Resort, a luxury glamping spot in town. He said with all the travelers in the area, Virgin and other gateway towns need to have places for them to stay.

“There's people who love our area that come to visit Zion National Park,” he said. “These communities, I think, have a responsibility to meet … market demands out there.”

Westhoff’s property has also been a point of controversy in the town’s debate over tourism and growth.

A political tug of war

The Weeping Buffalo sits near the middle of town, but a few years ago, the town council only approved resort development for the east side — the part closest to Zion.

Since then, the current council has been allowing projects in other parts of town, saying they need to accommodate growth. That’s upset a number of residents — so they’ve turned to referendums.

Over the past four years, residents have filed at least nine to fight back against zone changes.

But two in the last four years have made it to the ballot — and they both affected Westhoff’s property. The margins were razor thin and in the end he was able to open his resort.

Westhoff said it’s all been a big headache.

“We'll go through all the process, follow the rules and we'll get a zone change,” he said. “Then an activist group will come in and file a referendum, which puts it on the ballot for the general population to either affirm our right to have that zone change or to take it from us.”

A photo of landscape in Virgin, Utah.
Lexi Peery
Millions of people pass through Virgin every year on their way to Zion National Park. Some people are hoping to expand resort zoning in town, others want to keep it in one area.

The activists he’s talking about are other Virgin residents — including Darlene Pope. She didn’t sponsor a referendum related to Westhoff’s development, but she was involved in another one this year.

Pope said she became part of these efforts because it’s the only way she feels heard by her elected leaders.

“They have changed so many ordinances,” she said. “They may be lovely people, but they're very tone deaf. The reason you've had nine [referendums] is because [they] don't hear anybody.”

She said she feels as though the council is more likely to listen to developers with money than the residents.

Referendums as a political tool

There are just over 500 registered voters in town, and to get a referendum on the ballot in Virgin, 40% of them need to sign it.

Paul Luwe is running for city council and has sponsored two referendums since moving to Virgin in 2016. They aimed to limit the expansion of highway resort zoning. He said this is all a sign that leaders are doing something wrong.

“I think once you become an elected official, you've got to listen to everybody, not just to the people you [were] elected by,” he said.

“To put it real simply, it seems like people are using democracy to destroy democracy,” he said.
Sean Amodt

But Sean Amodt, a planning and zoning commissioner, said referendums are being misused by people in Virgin.

“To put it real simply, it seems like people are using democracy to destroy democracy,” he said.

Amodt said elected representatives should be making these decisions, not all of the residents.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said there’s no easy way to run a democracy. Referendums, he said, are a valuable tool to stop something people see as problematic.

But they also usually involve complex issues that are hard to solve with a simple yes or no vote.

“Sometimes what you get out of these kinds of citizen initiatives is sort of a clear black and white line where a little more gray and nuance probably would be helpful in terms of negotiating some of these issues,” he said.

Burbank said it’s rare to see a town like Virgin have this many referendums. He pointed out it all comes back to the underlying controversial debate — growth.

The “old timers” vs. the “newcomers”

For residents, it comes down to how the town should look and who gets a say in the matter.

Amodt said “old timers” want more economic development and newer residents are fighting it.

“It's the people who have just moved in who have been here 10 or less years and decided, well, I'm going to close the door behind me,” he said. “It's the people who have lived here the longest and have worked the dirt and understand every rock and wash … you’d think they’d be the ones that want it to stay exactly the same, but they’re also the ones who understand it.”

The town sees millions of people drive through on their way to Zion each year. Amodt said those in favor of resort development in Virgin are just trying to capitalize on growth in visitorship.

Pope is considered a newcomer. She’s only lived in the area full-time for four years and said she moved to Virgin to escape big cities. She said she enjoys the people in town, but doesn’t feel welcome to voice her opinion.

“I'd like to see a mixed use on Highway 9 [with] more residential and businesses.”
Darlene Pope

“It is a community in change,” she said. “We have some pioneer families here and I respect their heritage, but I'm frankly tired of being told because I haven't lived here for generations, my voice doesn't matter.”

Valerie Wenz used to be on the planning commission and is involved with the referendum efforts. She said she and the other sponsors aren’t against growth. What they’re asking for is smart planning and properties that aren’t zoned solely for resorts.

“I don't want to see hotel, hotel, hotel hotel,” she said. “I'd like to see a mixed use on Highway 9 [with] more residential and businesses.”

Breaking the stalemate

A sign with photos of 3 candidates.
Lexi Peery
The mayor and one council member are running for re-election this year. Them, and another council candidate, call themselves “Your Conservative Choice.” They are in favor of more tourism development in Virgin.

Gene Garate is a town council member and currently the zoning administrator. He said referendums are to “protect the people from tyranny” but they’ve swung too far.

“If I were in disagreement with my elected official, I'd vote to replace them,” he said.

And that’s what some people are trying to do. There’s a write-in mayoral candidate and two council candidates hoping to bring new voices to town government. Those contenders, including Paul Luwe, have all tried to get new zoning ordinances repealed. But he said referendums are not their ideal way of doing things.

“We need to figure out a different way to resolve this instead of keep on changing the eligibility and then doing another referendum,” he said.

And that is something everyone in Virgin can agree on.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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