Indianola Valley: What to do with 2,300 lots on 1 million acres

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a multi-part series about land and development issues in Indianola Valley.

By Emily Olsen, May 25, 2022, Sanpete Messenger
Sanpete County, Utah

INDIANOLA — Driving along U.S. 89 in the Indianola Valley, a visitor can enjoy views of meadows and mountains, and often get glimpses of foraging deer or soaring hawks overhead.

But appearances are deceiving. The Indianola Valley, part of the unincorporated county, is home to almost 50 residential subdivisions, with a combined 2,300 lots that involve more than 1 million acres, according to the Sanpete County recorder’s website.

Although most of the residential lots have been purchased by would-be homeowners, many with water rights included, only a fraction, 60 to 70, of those lots have homes on them, said Tim Wilson, enforcement officer for the Sanpete County Zoning Administrator’s Office. Some owners may be waiting to build, but many such owners can’t get building permits because their lots do not meet subdivision, zoning and health department requirements.

For the last couple of months, the Sanpete Messenger has been researching some of the issues Indianola residents and would-be residents are experiencing, including:

  • Building issues: Some owners who want to build are learning the “deeds” they received when they purchased lots aren’t legal. In at least one case, a buyer never received their deed. Owners also have trouble qualifying for water rights and meeting Central Utah Public Health Department (CUPHD) regulations.
  • Road access: There’s no point building a home of you can’t get to it. Some lots on subdivision maps are inaccessible. In other cases, roads have been graded without a permit. Other times, people are using private roads without authorizations
  • Illegal habitation: The Indianola Valley would see to be the perfect place for upscale country homes on large lots. It has become the opposite. Lower income individuals or families, or people who have simply come on hard times, set an RV, camp trailer or other vehicles — sometimes multiple vehicles — and live on lots without running water or sewer.
  • Carving a better path for the future: Long-time residents and county officials are trying to figure out how to preserve agriculture and sensitive lands, while allowing for rational development.

The valley’s problems are perhaps viewed through the eyes of people experiencing them, at least two of whom say they are afraid of the person who sold them their lots.

A Salt Lake County resident, who we will refer to as James Goode, wanted to build a vacation home in Indianola, and in 2017, he and his wife purchased a half-acre lot in the Deer Dance subdivision for $15,000.

He spent $7,500 on building supplies and had everything staked out, when, in early 2018, he received a rude awakening. He was informed by Sanpete County that Deer Dance was not an approved subdivision, and he would not be able to get a building permit there.

Goode wished to remain anonymous because of fear of retribution from the seller, Jamison Smith.

According to Goode, after he was denied a building permit, Smith offered to pay back the $15,000 he had spent for the lot, but he would not reimburse him for the building supplies.

But Goode says, “I haven’t gotten a damn dime back.”

Then Goode said he received a cease-and-desist letter from Smith’s attorney telling him to drop the demand for reimbursement of the building supplies.

Goode also wants to warn others who are thinking about building a home in the Indianola Valley to take the time to do your research.

“Something’s got to be done,” he said. “Everyone is scared of this guy.”

Meanwhile, the county is not getting involved in what it identifies as civil cases, Wilson said.

Tamara Jones, again not her real name, said she demanded her money back the minute she realized that Fred Smith, Jamison’s father, had “sold” her a lot in Blackhawk Mountain Estates in 2015 but never put the property in her name.

Fred Smith did refund the purchase price of her lot. Jones considers herself lucky. She was able to purchase another lot in the area, and the next time a family member purchased a residential lot, she made sure to get the property deed as soon as it was available.

“I don’t like seeing people getting screwed,” she said.

The Smith family owns a lot of land in Indianola under different business names, such as Utah Lands, Formen Corporation, Red Z, Argo Ltd., Sundance Ridge 2 LLC, Sanpete Empire Ltd., Tucker Enterprises, and others. The Smiths have also developed land in Summit, Tooele, Utah, Wasatch and Washington counties.

The Smiths often establish a monthly payment plan with their clients. They also like to hold on to property deeds until they receive full payment, often years later. In doing so, they are assuming a role usually filled by a bank or mortgage company.

Yet Jamison Smith denies that he is actually leasing, not selling, property to his clients. “At absolutely no time have we ever leased property,” he said. “We have considered a lease-to-own setup, but we never had any takers.”

Before building a home, homeowners need to be aware that several permits are required. Some are permits the seller or developer should obtain, such as a residential zoning permit. Depending on how the subdivision is set up, other permits must be obtained by either the developer or homeowner, such as water and sewer permits, approval of electricity and/or gas connections, and, ultimately, a building permit.

In addition, various conditional use permits may be required. For example, such a permit would be needed if a land owner is bringing in a tiny house or wants to install an additional outbuilding beyond the three that are permitted. The Sanpete County Zoning Administrator’s Office can assist people with questions about any specific situation.

Another predicament is the fact that the Sanpete County Commission approved most Indianola Valley subdivisions in the late 1970s and 1980s when zoning ordinances were very different from those in force today.

In a zoning rewrite in 2001, the county established the sensitive-lands zone and applied it to heavily wooded land or lands with steep terrain throughout the county, including broad swaths of the Indianola Valley. In areas zoned as sensitive lands, only one home is allowed per 40 acres.

A number of subdivisions now in the sensitive lands zone were approved 35-45 years ago with 1-acre lots. Those lots are now grandfathered in under the ordinances in place at the time they were approved.

However, the CUPHD requires septic tanks in any zone to be a minimum of 1 acre apart. If one person is able to build a home on a 1-acre lot with the required septic tank, it may disqualify the neighboring 1-acre lots from being developed, Wilson said.

Other health department regulations require that septic tanks be located at least 200 feet from water wells and within 15 feet of a property line, according to the CUPHD website.

People who have purchased land in Indianola with the intent to build but have not been able to for various reasons frequently default on their property taxes, Wilson said. In that case, the county repossesses the land and auctions it off to the next owner.

While Utah experiences an unprecedented drought, access to water in Indianola, as well as in other parts of the county, is becoming a major concern.

Some current residents in the Indianola Valley believe that when new residents drill wells and start using the water, they are lowering the water table. One resident said neighbors have been forced to dig their wells deeper, as deep as 600 feet, at a cost of $20,000 to $30,000.

“It is important for the county to start planning for growth in the north part of the valley,” said Vivian Kunz, Indianola resident, realtor and candidate for Sanpete County Commission.

In contrast to previous years when Kunz relied on the Wasatch Front for much of her business, all her sales this year have been in Sanpete County, she said.

“A lot of nice families are moving in, and the community has changed. I really love it. We are growing, but we need to look at the long term.”

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