The Property Rights Dilemma: Millard County — a Continuing Case Study

This is just the latest in a series of multiple articles about Millard County government and the ongoing status and assault on fundamental property rights in Millard County, a large, sparsely populated rural, agricultural county in Utah. See CAFO Proposals Test the Current Status of Property Rights in Millard County; Due Process and Equal Protection in Millard County — a CAFO Case Study, and; Millard County’s Land Use Ordinances Continue to Haunt Property Owners. See Also Dr. Michael Coffman’s excellent article on how Agenda 21 is Swallowing America.

The reality is the powers that be in Millard County can’t decide what they want. In the past year, they spent much effort trying to shut down farming, including swine CAFOs, on agricultural land. Now they want to shut down any residential construction as well. What they seem to be pushing for is no productive, beneficial use at all.

When it comes to government (and a lot of other things), there is virtually always more to the equation than meets the eye. This story involves both principles, procedures, and personalities.

Starting out with the “Who,” Millard County Commissioner Dean Draper was first elected six years ago on a purported property rights platform. But since then his true colors have started to really shine through. He has become a good example of God’s own observation of basic human nature: “We have learned from sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all me, that once they obtain a little authority, as they supposed, they immediately begin to exercise unjust dominion.”  

It should also be noted that at this point and for the past two years Millard County farmers and ranchers have had no representation on the county commission. Although the county commission controls all land use regulation in the unincorporated areas of the county (everything outside the incorporated municipalities), none of the current commissioners live or do business in the unincorporated county.

Beyond the who’s, how’s and why’s (which will be further discussed below), the specific “what” of this story involves current proposed amendments to Millard County land use regulations to make residential use and construction of residential dwellings unlawful in the county’s agricultural zoning district. 

The proposed amendments are very simple: “Parcels in the Agricultural (Ag) Zoning District created after January 1, 2021 shall not be eligible for the construction or placement of residential buildings.”

In terms of the “Why,” the purported justification  for these amendments  is that there is increasing residential development on prime farmland, and inherent conflicts between agricultural and residential land uses. While suburban sprawl and development of prime agricultural land and inherent conflicts are a legitimate concern throughout the entire state, including Millard County, this is straight out of Agenda 21. It is not a compelling justification for infringing fundamental property rights with an overreaching one-size-fits-all approach.  The willingness to exercise government power and manipulate the process to infringe fundamental property rights is a much more compelling concern. 

What this one-size-fits-all approach means is that it will no longer be possible to construct residential dwellings in the agricultural zoning district in Millard County without first applying to change the use, and re-zoning the property to residential. While socialistic efforts to protect agricultural land against suburban sprawl and residential development, and against potential conflicts may seem like legitimate objectives, what it also means is that farmers and ranchers, and their families and employees, etc., will be seriously curtailed in their fundamental right and ability to finance and construct residences and live on their own family farms and ranches.  

A policy involving fundamental property rights that ought to be slowly and deliberately crafted and adopted with the care and precision of a surgical scalpel is being crafted and implemented with the precision of a sledge hammer, and as quickly and recklessly as possible. 

Let us not forget some fundamental principles. According to the Utah State Republican Party Platform: “We believe government properly exists by the consent of the governed and must be restrained from intruding into the freedoms of its citizens.  The function of government is not to grant rights, but to protect the unalienable, God-given rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.”  

Now, let’s take a serious look at “How” this is going down.

These proposed amendments require public hearings, including one before the Millard County Planning Commission, and one before the Millard County Commission.

Although the chairman of the planning commission is supposed to set the meeting agenda, in this case, Millard County Planner, Adam Richins, placed this item on the agenda for the Planning Commission’s monthly meeting in December.  Normally, particularly during the month of December, and especially during a pandemic, if there was not anything more pressing to address, the Planning Commission would not even hold a meeting during the month of December.  But clearly, there was more to the equation here, and a big push to rush this through.

Although many public hearings and meetings in general are very sparsely attended, and that seems to be the way most public officials like it; and undoubtedly that is what they hoped for in this case, they had to have been disappointed when a large crowd showed up for this meeting.  After over an hour and a half of public comments, the overwhelming sentiment expressed was that this is a sufficiently important issue that the language should be carefully scrutinized and refined, and the commission should slow down, take its time, and table the whole issue for further discussion. 

 Although Utah has fairly stringent open & public meeting laws, which expressly require that everything be done openly and transparently, in full and broad daylight, in this case a big part of the equation that wasn’t meeting almost anyone else’s eye was everything that was going on behind the scene to ram this through.

Among other things, during the public hearing before the planning commission, Commissioners Dean Draper and Evelyn Warnick were sitting together in a back hall, out of sight of the public, listening to the proceedings (was their little conclave actually an unlawful meeting between them?).  Draper was also texting back and forth with Chairman David Sturlin, coaching and prodding him along to ensure that, by hook or crook, there would be a favorable recommendation from the planning commission before the night was over. He may have also been texting others involved in the decision making process.

Based on Commission member Greg Greathouse’s actions, it was also quite clear that the moving forces behind the whole thing, including Draper and County Planner Adam Richins, had Greathouse fully wired to do their bidding.  So Greathouse became the outspoken advocate for rushing ahead and moving to provide a favorable recommendation for the proposed sledgehammer amendments, without any further discussion or refinement, that night.  But despite his adamant advocacy, things were touch and go for a while.  A strong contingent of the planning commission were advocating for more time and more careful deliberation and refinement of the language.  For a long time, it seemed that Greathouse’s motion was not gaining traction.  But Chairman Sturlin, who was receiving text messages from Commisisoner Draper, would not let it die.  He kept stalling, and kept begging for someone to second the motion, which no one seemed to be willing to do — until Greathouse passed a secret, Hail Mary note to commission member John Nye, who was sitting next to him, begging him to second the motion because “if we don’t do it tonight, this is never going to happen.” 

Open and transparent actions and deliberations?  Not hardly.  But it’s nothing new for Millard County government either.

So Nye eventually seconded the pending motion, and the favorable recommendation went to a vote, eventually passing by a 4-3 split vote.

At this point it is fairly clear that the Millard County Commission — or at least one of its members — is determined to ram this through before the end of the year.  So it is presumed that it will be on the agenda for the Millard County Commission’s December 15th meeting. 

There are lots of terms and phrases that can be used to describe what is going on here, but just a few that come to mind are “wired”, “rigged”, and “railroaded” — all because of a clear lack of understanding and lack of respect for fundamental property rights.  

Stay tuned.