Less than one month after the operating hours at the Bluff Transfer Station were cut in half, the San Juan County Commission is considering a proposal that could shut it down completely.
At a public hearing on April 4, Lynn Stevens, former county commissioner and government-relations director for the Hole in the Rock Foundation (HIRF), requested that San Juan County sell the two-acre parcel where the transfer station is located to the foundation.
HIRF is a nonprofit foundation that seeks to preserve and share the history of Mormon pioneers who arrived in Bluff in 1880 after completing the grueling Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition. The foundation operates the Bluff Fort, a collection of historic replica buildings, and leads excursions on nearby public lands.
In 2007, HIRF purchased an eight-acre property several miles west of Bluff and directly north of the Bluff Transfer Station, a garbage collecting facility which services Bluff and nearby communities on the Navajo Nation.
The foundation has since built a campground on the lot, which, according to Stevens, is intended to host Mormon and non-Mormon youth groups. Stevens said the campground could see up to 600 visitors this year.
But the campground’s proximity to the county-managed transfer station, which holds refuse in open containers before it’s trucked to the White Mesa Landfill 13 miles away, has been an issue for the foundation since the campground was constructed.
Stevens said a six-stall restroom was built partly on the county property after HIRF erroneously assumed that the fence line around the transfer station marked the property line.
In 2015, HIRF proposed a land swap with the county that would have moved the transfer station to within a mile of its current location, but the individuals who own property adjacent to the proposed site, objected.
A public notice on the April 4 meeting announced there would be “a public hearing to receive input from the public with respect to a land exchange in Bluff, Utah, involving property owned by the county and a non-profit entity.”
At the hearing, however, Stevens proposed to buy the property outright from the county at whatever the assessed value is.
Stevens said it would be up to the county whether or not they want to rebuild the transfer station elsewhere at HIRF’s expense. Stevens noted that the station is “losing money every time it opened its gates.”
Earlier this month, the operating hours at the Bluff Transfer Station were reduced from four to two days per week in an effort to save county funds. Transfer stations can be found at a number of locations throughout the sprawling county, and operating the facilities can be costly.
In addition to the changes in Bluff, operating hours were recently cut for the transfer station in La Sal.
County records show the transfer station near Bluff is seeing an average of only four to six customers per day, depending on the month. It is now open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Wes Shook, a member of the Bluff Service Area Board since 2015, said he thought the cut in operating hours is justified, but he objects to any plan that would close it for good.
Shook notes that the White Mesa Landfill, which is the main landfill for the county, is closed on Saturday, which limits the options for people who work during the week.
The county keeps no record of where transfer station customers come from to dump their trash, but Shook believes the Bluff transfer station is used by residents of White Rocks, Little Mexican Water, Five Points, Aneth, and Montezuma Creek, in addition to Bluff. He’s requesting the county conduct a study of where the transfer station customers come from.
At the public hearing, Stevens suggested it would only add four miles for residents of Bluff to dump at the White Mesa Landfill instead of at the transfer station. From the geographic center of Bluff, it is just over two miles to the transfer station. The landfill is 11 miles away.
For anyone who lives east or south of Bluff, a trip to the landfill instead of the current transfer station would add 26 miles round-trip compared to the current location of the transfer station.
Shook adds that the HIRF knew the transfer station was there when they purchased the property in question and constructed the campground.
“If I was a private citizen, and I built a KOA campground next to a transfer station, do you think the county would sell me the property if there were flies in my campground and all that?” Shook asks.
But Stevens said the HIRF’s “master plan” for the campground makes use of the transfer station parcel, including plans to build a storage building on the county property and an activities center for youth.
“We have a big expansion plan that would definitely benefit from having the county’s two acres,” Stevens told the commissioners.
At the end of the meeting, Stevens also mentioned plans for “a huge event at the campground that that additional space will be helpful for. It’s state-sponsored, a big activity,” he said.
San Juan County Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Pehrson said any outright sale of county property would need to be conducted through an open-bid process.
The HIRF initiated a similar sale of SITLA property last year when they proposed to purchase a 380-acre parcel on Comb Ridge. The parcel went to auction in October and several entities submitted bids. HIRF and a conservation group were outbid by Lyman Family Farms.
HIRF may face less competition for the transfer station parcel since it likely contains hazardous waste. The property was used as a landfill prior to the construction of the transfer station. Stevens said HIRF would pay for clean-up of the transfer station site.
Shook asked if the foundation would consider subsidizing a trash pick-up service for the residents of Bluff if the transfer station is sold and shut down.
Stevens was frank in his reply. “The answer is absolutely not,” he said. “The Hole in the Rock Foundation is under no obligation to accommodate the people of Bluff and where they haul their garbage.”
There are currently no garbage collection services in Bluff. If a current proposal to incorporate the community is approved, it is assumed that garbage collection services would be considered.