Keeping watch on Kane Creek
Beloved Moab area slated for luxury resort and condos
Many years ago, while I was still in college, my friends and I drove up a long, desolate road through Kane Creek Canyon in Moab, Utah. We were camping within the quiet wilderness of red cliffs and the Colorado River. I had never, nor have, ever, seen a veil of stars as dense as the one I saw that night.
That wasn’t the first time I made my way up the canyon, nor do I hope it is my last – or anyone’s last chance to encounter a mostly empty, quiet Kane Creek.
The canyon is about 2 miles southwest of Moab and has been a recreational artery for ages; taking campers, climbers, mountain bikers, hikers, base jumpers and other outdoor enthusiasts to the places they love.
Now, heavy machinery is rumbling around an area inside the canyon called King’s Bottom, leveling and back filling 180 acres of private land to make room for 586 residential and short-term units, and 72,000 square feet of commercial space. The entity behind the development is Kane Creek Preservation and Development, LLC (KCPD), a private investment group based in San Francisco.
The group, contrary to the “Preservation” name, is “historically focused on the hospitality and consumer sectors … a vertically integrated developer, investor and lender for hospitality and multifamily real estate.” It has a portfolio of luxury investments all over the country, including upscale hotels in Manhattan and Chicago, and a golf and spa retreat in Carmel Valley, Calif.
Kane Creek is probably one of the last places in Moab someone might imagine a golf course, spa or high-rise hotel. Slapping a real estate sticker on the land directly in contact with the Colorado River seems absurd. However, the development group found the chance to do so through a loophole from a land-use agreement made with Grand County a few decades ago.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Moab was seeing an influx of visitors and tourists who would wander up Kane Creek to camp, inevitably making marks by leaving human waste and garbage behind. In response, the county and BLM sought out areas to develop into campgrounds in order to build facilities such as bathrooms and trash receptacles. At the time, the landowner of the 10-acre King’s Bottom – where the King’s Bottom Campground is now – supported the zoning for the simple reason of continuing to keep Kane Creek and its adjacent water safe and clean.
Thirty or so years later, KCPD bought the land, home to a chicken farm and smattering of alternative dwellings, from a local family. However, possibly due to a clerical error made years ago, the area had been re-zoned from the original 18 units for up to 2,400 units, paving the way for a metropolis of condos.
Calling the project “thoughtful and respectful,” the San Francisco-based development group has planned for a resort and “luxury living” for about two years. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that locals started to get a whiff of what was truly happening and how big the project and impact would be.
Enter, Kane Creek Development Watch, a grassroots advocacy group started by a couple of concerned locals that has since garnered support of over 13,000 (and growing) petitioners to stop the development. The group has put out an unrelenting rallying call to whoever loves Moab or just wild places in general and is pressuring on county officials and the developers to ask the questions of “why” and “how.”
Kane Creek Development Watch has noted of the environmental destruction the luxury units would cause, including pollution and disruption to the Colorado River – a critical water source for Utah’s neighboring southern states – as well as noise and light pollution.
Not only that, but the development sits on a well-known floodplain. And while KCPD has tried to reason that it will backfill and raise the land by 2-10 feet to solve that problem, many locals only laugh at the naivety.
In a letter written about the development to the Utah Division of Water Quality on behalf of citizens of Grand and San Juan counties, Conservation Director of Living Rivers & Colorado Riverkeeper John Weisheit wrote: “The extreme behaviors of nature cannot be predicted – they occur randomly. If they have happened in the past, they will happen in the future.” The letter continues to speak of the effects of the proposed development and the estimated added pressure of 1,650 extra people on Kane Creek and surrounding areas.
Despite the letter, the development appears to be moving forward, including building its own wastewater treatment plant. According to Kane Creek Development Watch organizer Dailey Haren, the Grand County Commission will be voting on the conditional use permit for the sewage plant in the next month or two. Needless to say, if building on floodplains isn’t halted and sewage plants are installed, we’d have to hold our breath for the day the flooding comes and it all goes to literal and figurative shit.
The environmental concerns don’t end with flooding. Kane Creek Development Watch has had an eagle eye on every aspect of the development, including social and economic impacts. The group, along with other opponents of the project, have called out KCPD for falsely claiming that these luxury units will ease the local housing crisis, noting that the units are specifically marketed to second homeowners and part-time residents. In fact, a 2022 Sotheby’s Realty brochure provided by a Kane Creek resident depicts > the area filled with swimming pools, spas, water features, fitness centers, restaurants and more. According to the brochure, 2-bedroom, 2.5 bathroom duplexes will be sold for $1.5 million.
Moab is a town notoriously run by gritty outdoors people – river rats, climbers and mountain bikers – who survive off the service industry. There is absolutely no way these locals could afford such “luxury.”
As for the ongoing work of Kane Creek Development Watch, the group has grown exponentially, referring to the support it has received as a “swell.” Volunteers have raised their hands to be movers and shakers, helping to spread the word, keep everyone informed and stop the development before permanent damage is too great to bear.
However, the situation is constantly evolving. Just this week, Kane Creek Development Watch submitted evidence to Grand County that the gravel mining above the Kane Creek Road, where developers are extracting material to build up the floodplain, is a violation of the County Land Use Code. The group is demanding an immediate cease and desist to work at the site.
While time is of the essence, hope is high in the eyes of the watchdog group and its 13,000-plus supporters. A recent public meeting on the development was standing-room only with an estimated 100 attending in person and more on Zoom.
“When diverse individuals set aside differences to unite for a common cause, it amplifies the strength and legitimacy of the movement,” Laura Long, a main organizer of Kane Creek Development Watch, said. “We are a powerful force that is hard for developers or decision-makers to disregard. This movement is passionate with expert environmentalists, lawyers and grassroots activists within the Moab community and beyond.”
The group continues to work hard to navigate the complexities it will face when going up against the luxury development Goliath, and a crowd-sourcing fund has been set up to offset operating and legal costs (You can find the donation page on their website.).
“We believe the best outcome would be to see the developers recognize our unified voice and choose to stand on the right side of history – selling the land for true preservation,” Long said. “In the more likely case that they disregard the community’s collective will, general welfare and the environmental imperatives at stake, we will be prepared to take action, leveraging every legal and community resource at our disposal.”
The fight is imperative, not just for Kane Creek and Moab, but for any open space that we can still go to that is quiet, peaceful and you can see a veil of stars like you’ve never seen before.