Developer behind controversial Moab development gets $1M from Legislature for nonprofit

The Utah Legislature voted last week to funnel $1 million into a fledgling workforce housing nonprofit helmed by Kane Creek developer Craig Weston.

It’s one of several new housing-related nonprofits associated with Weston. Another, the Utah Workforce Housing Alliance, was founded in 2022 and as of early this year appeared to have almost no public presence except through a donation to a Grand County political party.

Utah Workforce Housing Advocacy, the nonprofit awarded funding, is a three-month-old organization described on the Legislature’s website as a group that “advocates for affordable housing for first-time homebuyers, workforce housing, and housing stock in general for Utahns.”

Weston, one of the three business partners of Kane Creek Preservation and Development and the executive director of the housing nonprofit, originally requested $2.5 million for the group from the Legislature’s Business, Economic Development, and Labor Appropriations Subcommittee on Feb. 2.

When asked for comment later, he described the organization’s goal as “nothing short of a complete overhaul of housing policy in Utah.”

He said the organization has bipartisan support and aims to both shape land use processes and help the public “better understand the underlying issues and challenges.”

“Development and land use remain very complicated matters and result in a lot of passion among a lot of people — understandably,” Weston wrote in an email. “But it is critical that all of us find better ways to balance property rights, local community concerns and market economics.”

Steve Waldrip, a former state legislator named last year as Gov. Spencer Cox’s senior advisor for housing strategy and innovation, said the idea for the group first arose with him and Matt Lusty, the nonprofit’s registered agent and a founding partner at Election Hive, a campaign consulting firm.

Waldrip said he and Lusty envisioned a group focused on “non-political, nonpartisan advocacy for Utah housing” that combats people’s aversion toward growth.

“It’s kind of a ‘win the hearts and minds of the people’ campaign,” Waldrip said. “We need people to refocus on the fact that yes, growth is painful; yes, change is difficult; but the future of our state … depends on our children staying here and not being forced to go look for the American dream in other states.”

Indeed, the organization’s appropriations request emphasizes outreach — educating Utahns about existing efforts to increase first-time homeownership and low-income individuals.

While the business subcommittee downgraded the group’s funding to $200,000, less than 10% of the initial request, the more-powerful Executive Appropriations Committee jacked the amount back up to $1 million a week before the close of the General Session.

Waldrip said the money will be subject to “full and complete” accountability measures.

“This won’t be anything that’s hidden or secretive at all,” he said, adding that the group has also raised $250,000 privately.

The organization will be led by an executive committee — of which he’s part — as well as a larger board of directors and a policy committee.

Waldrip is still building those boards, but said the organization will include representation from a number of prominent public and private Utah organizations — the Legislature as well as Envision Utah, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, the Utah Transit Authority, America First Credit Union and universities.

“The governor is extremely excited about it,” Waldrip added.

Just days before the appropriation became final, however, some Moab residents spoke out against public money funding an as-yet unheard-of organization.

Laura Long, who’s involved with a local opposition group to the Kane Creek project, questioned whether the appropriation would be used to bankroll outreach efforts for the Colorado River-adjacent project.

Waldrip said the group is focused on a “broad messaging campaign” and will not promote any particular development or developer.

For some in the local housing development business, the swiftness and size of the appropriation for a group with almost no public presence appeared “perplexing.” (The recording of the Feb. 2 subcommittee meeting starts only after the group’s agenda item, and the Sen. Daniel McCay, who introduced the appropriation, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Moab resident Kaitlin Myers, for example, said many state-led grant and loan programs would require “a lot of hoops to jump through” before granting a group $1 million.

“It’s frustrating and perplexing,” Myers said on Feb. 27, “to see that this nonprofit, which was created four months ago, is being recommended a million dollars with less than a paragraph’s worth of explanation for what the fund would go toward or how they would be held accountable.”

A Moab City councilor and executive director of the Moab Area Community Land Trust, Myers clarified she was not speaking on behalf of either organization.

Another workforce-housing nonprofit related to Weston has also received community attention — not for money it will receive, but money it has distributed.

Weston donated $6,000 to the Grand County Republican Party in 2022 through the Utah Workforce Housing Alliance, another nonprofit that at the time was registered under the name of his brother, Kael Weston.

A Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2022, Kael Weston clarified that the donation had been made without his knowledge. He added that he’s not directly involved in the Kane Creek development but has been pushing for conservation easements or affordable housing on the property.

Craig Weston described the workforce housing alliance as an emergent policy forum focused on advancing solutions to the state’s housing crisis.

He said the bipartisan group’s first donation went to the local Republican Party because it’s the part of the state with which he is most familiar.

“Unfortunately, Grand County has become a case study of lack of action on housing and some unnecessary antagonism with the state Legislature,” Weston wrote in an email. “I hope the situation improves and intend to be part of finding real housing solutions going forward, not just in Grand but statewide.”

Weston and his Kane Creek business partners, Trent Arnold and Tom Gottlieb, have indeed pursued workforce housing projects in Moab. Their attempt to build over 100 units on a Murphy Lane parcel fell into limbo in July after the Grand County Commission declined to sell some its adjacent property.

Weston said future donations from the group could support candidates of either party who “are working toward common ground and real results.”

“There is no partisan litmus test when it comes to good ideas and better housing policy,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Times-Independent.

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