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A recent settlement in a long-standing dispute between Utah and environmental groups over a proposed highway near the Great Salt Lake could serve as a model for addressing disputes over wilderness areas, oil and gas rights and more, say lawyers familiar with the case. Utah’s settlement with Utahns for Better Transportation, the Sierra Club and others provides for the immediate construction of the $685 million, 14-mile Legacy Parkway-the first major parkway to be built in the United States in the last half-century-that also protects wetlands in northern Utah along the shores of the Great Salt Lake. “It’s not just a road case. What it exemplifies is what can happen when people stop villainizing each other and find common ground when confronted with the inevitable development that arises from growth,” said Craig D. Galli, a partner in the Salt Lake City office of Denver-based Holland & Hart. He litigated the plaintiffs’ case, pro bono, through their win three years ago at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Utahns for Better Transportation v. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, 305 F.3d 1152 (10th Cir. 2002). An innovative feature of the settlement is the state’s agreement to set up a voluntary, nonbinding dispute resolution mechanism to handle all future challenges to Utah Department of Transportation decisions. Parties first can take their disputes to a moderator before resorting to federal litigation under the environmental laws. Lawyers involved in the case said that the sheer comprehensiveness of the settlement is unique in itself. The state agreed to designate 122 acres that it will purchase between the highway and the lake as a wildlife preserve. No trucks will be permitted on the parkway, and there will be a 55 miles per hour speed limit-features subject to review in 2020. The state agreed to basic changes in road design, and will ban all billboards. Still further, the state will break ground for a commuter rail line when it begins highway construction. It also agreed to fund a feasibility study on transportation alternatives to the highway, such as a light rail system. Environmentalists also managed to protect the Great Salt Lake ecosystem and bird flyway, to prevent sprawl development toward the lake, and to diversify area transportation options, said Robert W. Adler, a professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law who represented plaintiffs in the case. “The message is: Can you construct a project that meets the same need in a different way?” Adler said. A ‘eureka’ moment Margaret N. “Peggy” Strand, a partner at Washington’s Venable whom Utah hired and appointed as special assistant attorney general to negotiate the settlement, said the two sides’ focus on their interests made it possible to “meet their road needs and their environmental needs in an effective and visionary way. “The idea of adjusting the road to the context, having the road where the state wanted but with other features more sensitive to the Great Salt Lake location was the ‘eureka’ moment” at which point the two sides began to resolve their differences, Strand said. Ralph Becker, the Democratic minority leader in the Utah House of Representatives and a planner and lawyer with the consulting firm Bear West in Salt Lake City, agreed, saying that the comprehensive nature of the settlement makes it unusual. “It paves the way for people who want to take advantage of it to do something with it,” Becker said. But the negotiations were not all sweetness and light. Adler noted that it was the plaintiffs’ win in the 10th Circuit that gave them the leverage they needed to stay the course. The 10th Circuit sent the case back to the district court three years ago, halting construction on the project and seeking further review of several environmental issues and regional transportation options. “Both sides had something to bring to the table in terms of leverage, in terms of ideas and a willingness to sit down and find out workable ways to accommodate them,” Adler said.

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