- Peter Holslin
"It doesn't make economic sense to raise cattle and hay in Salt Lake City anymore. There's no tractor dealer. There's no fertilizer salesman. Nothing's close," rancher Dalon Hinckley says. "We just had to get creative."
Cross E Ranch sits on a buggy patch of unincorporated territory at the edge of Salt Lake County. Just north of the international airport and west of Interstate 215, it's part of the last-remaining stretch of farmland within county lines—where runways for commercial jets give way to basin prairie, gravel roads and a handful of hay fields.
Dalon Hinckley and his sister, Heather Limon, have been tilling the soil and raising cattle on this land their entire lives. Their dad, David Hinckley, took over Cross E Ranch from the previous owner in 1968. After he passed away in 2014, the two siblings converted some of the property into a kid-friendly interactive farm to host festivals and events. Although there isn't much of an agriculture industry left in these parts, they still want to teach youngsters the ways of rural life.
"When you come across the river, you drive into the country, and it's totally a different perspective," Hinckley says on a recent afternoon, as dozens of children laugh and scream while playing on the ranch's slides and zip-lines. The Jordan River flows a short walk away, marked by a tree line at the end of a vast corn maze and 12-acre pumpkin patch.
As Hinckley has worked to preserve the property, he can't help but notice that—just as Bob Dylan once said—times are a-changin'. In recent weeks, the quiet stretch of desert flatlands encompassing the ranch has been the focus of a complex annexation dispute. A real estate developer has his eye on the area, some property owners want to sell, and a petition to redraw local boundaries so they fall under the jurisdiction of North Salt Lake has awakened anxieties about urban expansion and rapid development along the Wasatch Front.
Cross E Ranch is an oasis of country charm on fast-changing territory. Planes can be seen taking off in the distance, yet here there's a stable where hogs, donkeys and goats lounge about. Vendors fry donuts and sell them fresh out of a small red barnhouse. A sewage canal snakes along by the road, looking unaccountably picturesque; when Hinckley and Limon's dad was a little kid, he and his friends would visit it to shoot turds with their BB guns.
The surrounding area, known as North Pointe, was once home to a robust agriculture industry—going as far back as the early 1900s, when beet farmers were contributing to Utah's sugar factories. Thousands of cattle were raised in the county, reaching a peak in the 1960s. But most farmers have moved away in recent years, and Cross E Ranch was running at a steep loss until Hinckley and Limon found a new revenue stream by staging their annual spring and fall festivals.
"It doesn't make economic sense to raise cattle and hay in Salt Lake City anymore. There's no tractor dealer. There's no fertilizer salesman. Nothing's close," Hinckley says. "We just had to get creative."
Evolving as a business has prompted them to revisit longstanding frustrations with the area's infrastructure. Much of the land is currently zoned for agricultural use, and Salt Lake County doesn't provide sewage or water systems. The sewage canal has doubled in size, and municipal maps show zig-zagging boundaries between unincorporated county, Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake. When they've had to call 911, Hinckley says police and fire departments get mired in confusion about jurisdiction, creating devastating delays in response times.
To make things easier, the ranchers recently petitioned to have their land annexed by North Salt Lake. The city is just across the Jordan River in Davis County, providing affordable access to sewage and water lines. Hinckley also thinks North Salt Lake would be amenable to more flexible zoning regulations compared to the much-larger Salt Lake City, making it easier for Cross E to adapt its business operations.
Other North Pointe property owners joined the petition. A Bountiful-based real estate developer, Dave Tolman, has offered to buy their land to use as the site for a 1,100-unit residential tract dubbed Misty River, similar to North Salt Lake's Foxboro development. North Salt Lake Mayor Len Arave tells City Weekly that he'd prefer residential development over industrial parks or warehouses; redrawing the border lines would also give the city leverage over zoning for future developments.
However, handing over territory from one county to another requires the involvement of a dizzying list of government bodies—including Salt Lake City, the airport authority and a school district. Area property owners and residents in neighboring communities have also raised concerns about the Misty River project, which they worry will negatively impact traffic, air quality and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
The Byzantine nature of the proposed annexation became clear when an array of stakeholders packed into a conference room for a meeting of the Salt Lake County Council in late September. In an hour-long public comment session, Tolman said Misty River would provide much-needed affordable housing close to jobs in downtown Salt Lake. "We're between 10 and 20 minutes from the major employment centers. It's exactly what we've been asking for for years," he said.
But Patti Jensen, who has lived on property next to Cross E Ranch for decades, expressed horror at the idea of bringing all those apartments, townhomes and houses into her area. "Nine units per acre—think about that," she said. "Who wants that in their community? It's all about money."
Dorothy Owen, chair of the Westpointe Community Council—a community group that oversees issues in the northwest Salt Lake neighborhood nearby—called for county officials to play a more active role in brokering proposed developments, so nothing gets rushed through in a part of the county already facing encroachment from the airport and the inland port.
"We're not saying there's not going to be development. We're just saying that we need thoughtful, deliberate process, and we as citizens are willing to work with you guys," she said. "But you are the leaders. We need you to be the crossing guards over the troubled bridge, not the guys in the back of the parade cleaning up all the crap. And that's what we're afraid is going to happen."
The county council ended up blocking the property owners' attempt to join forces with North Salt Lake, casting a 6-3 vote against annexation.
Speaking with City Weekly after the vote, councilmember Shireen Ghorbani was sympathetic to the property owners, acknowledging the need for more housing in the county, improved infrastructure in the area and their right to sell their land. She said the proposed annexation didn't address questions about where students who live in new residential developments in the area would go to school and how it would impact other communities. "There's no way to know, because we haven't had a deep public process where the developers engaged in conversations with the communities, including Westpointe and Jordan Meadows," Ghorbani added.
The council vote was strictly on the question of annexing land across county lines, she said. They could also apply for rezoning in the county, or petition to have their land annexed by Salt Lake City.
Back on the ranch, Hinckley seemed indifferent about the vote, saying their festivals will keep going regardless. Still, he thinks it's only a matter of time before the bulldozers come for this last bit of farmland in Salt Lake County—an outcome he's willing to accept.
"Do I want houses right here? No, I think it's beautiful. But I also, as a farmer, fully understand how much work and expense and effort it takes every day to keep something looking nice," he says. "However you want to slice it and dice it, someone's going to build there. It's just a matter of when, and who gets the money from it."