This story has been corrected.
SPANISH VALLEY — When Marlene Huckabay moved to Spanish Valley in 1994, her two-acre lot was little more than a patch of desert with a tar paper shack surrounded by stark, red-rock cliffs.
“I walked around, and I looked at the La Sals, and I envisioned this ugly thing, this ugly place, into my paradise,” she said.
Twenty-five years later, her lot on Sunny Acres Lane, just off Highway 191, is an oasis. She’s upgraded to a quaint, one-story manufactured home. There’s a guest house where the shack once stood. Peach, apricot and almond trees line the driveway. Windchimes tinkle in the breeze. Some days, she puts a bowl of water in her garden for the wild rabbits that come to nibble on her grass.
Huckabay moved to northern San Juan County from Denver for the peace and quiet. Her home is in a rural area, with an empty lot to the south.
“My realtor told me it was school trust land, and I thought, “Great, I’m all for schools,” she said. “I figured someday it would have some improvement, but not a truck stop.”
In March, she found out that Love’s Travel Stops plans to develop the 13-acre lot with more than 50 truck bays and 90 smaller parking spots. The project is part of a wave of growth projected to hit Spanish Valley, where around 500 people live now.
Once known as “Poverty Flats” because of a lack of services, Spanish Valley will get water and sewer service this fall. The $13 million project, underway since 2016, has opened the valley up for commercial development. As one of the first businesses to move in, Love’s has served as a flashpoint for opposition to the growth, which could add nearly 9,000 residents in the next decade.
Pat Baril, who lives down the street from Huckabay, is part of a group called the Northern San Juan County Coalition. The coalition formed to oppose the Love’s truck stop, in part, because of the health risks it poses.
“We have to worry about venting, diesel exhaust, light pollution, noise pollution, air pollution,” he said.
Baril also raised concerns about contamination of the valley’s groundwater. Preliminary site plans show underground diesel storage tanks less than 200 feet away from a creek that feeds most residents' wells.
“They’re going to have to have not only their storage tanks, they’re going to have to have holding tanks. They’re going to have to have run-off tanks. None of this, that we know of, is in the contracts,” he said. “So we’re fighting for our lives.”
Drive to Develop
A lack of zoning ordinances in Spanish Valley means there’s nothing stopping Love’s from building right next to their homes if the sale goes through. But that doesn’t seem to concern the seller.
The land is owned by Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, a state office that generates revenue for public education and other institutions through land sales, mining leases and other uses.
While SITLA follows all local, state, and federal laws, it doesn’t consider factors like health impacts when approving sales, according to Bryan Torgerson, a SITLA resource specialist.
“We are not regulators, that’s not our expertise,” he said. “We’re really just businesspeople who do financial transactions.”
SITLA owns 5,300 acres in Spanish Valley, and is constitutionally mandated to make as much money as possible by leasing or selling that land. It paid San Juan County $2 million upfront for water and sewer connection fees, which helped offset the project’s $13 million cost.
“We’ve been very big on getting water and sewer to San Juan County, mainly because it will elevate the type of planning and development that can happen,” Torgerson said.
This year, SITLA provided $82 million dollars to public schools in the state, according to Torgerson, with around $250,000 going to San Juan County.
Planning, or a lack of it, has put San Juan County officials in an awkward position. Development in Spanish Valley has the potential to generate revenue for the cash-strapped county, but some residents don’t want businesses built next to their houses.
To address this challenge, the county chose to develop a comprehensive area plan for Spanish Valley, and SITLA agreed to help. It paid 80% of the cost to hire consulting firm Landmark Design Incorporated to create zoning ordinances for Spanish Valley.
The San Juan County Commission adopted the Spanish Valley Area Plan in 2018, but didn’t ratify any zoning ordinances. The current zoning is agricultural, with a commercial corridor extending 1000 feet from either side of Highway 191.
To avoid the current controversy, the county should have been stricter with development in the commercial and agricultural zones, said Mark Vlasic with Landmark Design.
“The poor planning that has been allowed to happen along the highway, to the north, is the culprit for the problem,” he said.
But not everyone sees the truck stop as a negative. San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said a number of people from Spanish Valley support it. He added that Love’s could bring in up to $1 million in tax revenue each year, which is about a tenth of the county’s overall budget.
“The county helped get a sewer and water system into the valley, and it cost us $13 million,” he said. “We hoped there would be some commercial development to get revenue back.”
While the sale to Love’s is not final, there’s not much residents can do to stop it. But they still plan to fight future projects. Love’s has served as a warning and catalyst for local residents.
“We went to the San Juan County Commissioners meetings and we started voicing our opinions,” Baril said. “We were able to get up and say ‘Look it, we had no idea this was going on.’”
In May, San Juan County voted to put a six-month moratorium on commercial development along the highway in Spanish Valley. The county also re-hired Landmark Design to create new ordinances for that corridor, which includes the lot Love’s has under contract.
“Will the ordinances we come up with now allow for something like Love’s to come up again? That’s what we’re wrestling with right now,” Vlasic said.
Whether or not any new ordinances will apply to Love’s is unclear. San Juan County administrator David Everitt said Love’s got part of their building application in before the moratorium started, but could not confirm whether it is vested under the old zoning ordinances.
Landmark Design will submit draft ordinances to the San Juan County Planning and Zoning board on Friday, which the board can change or recommend as-is to the County Commission. The moratorium on building will expire in November.
In the meantime, Huckabay is considering whether to move. On a recent weekday she looked out from her yard at the site of the future truck stop. For now, she can see red rock cliffs. If the truck stop is built, her view will be obscured by a privacy fence. She wonders what else would be different.
“My safety here, I’ve never worried about any kind of danger,” she said. “And last night I was up at 3:30, it was so black out here. There’s just no light, and I love that. It’s hard to imagine it changed into something else.”
Correction 9:31 a.m. MDT 9/11/19. A previous version of this story stated that Marlene Huckabay bought her San Juan County land in 1994. She bought it in 1991, and moved there in 1994.
Correction 9:33 a.m. MDT 9/11/19. A previous photo caption version stated that Marlene Huckabay bought her land from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.