Nothing resonates in a resort town quite like the staccato thrum of nail guns and the deep bass of earth-moving machinery. In a rapidly growing community, balancing natural resources and development can be tricky, to say the least. Few people know that better than longtime local and developer Rory Murphy.
“I’m in the ugly stage right now,” he says of King’s Crown, a 59-unit project currently under construction above Old Town. “I’m just apologizing to everybody … But Silver Star [a slopeside project that won Project of the Year awards from Utah Housing Coalition, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Utah Heritage Society] also looked like this for a couple of years—it will all come together.”
The emergency of King’s Crown on sacred, maple-lined ground above Old Town comes in the wake of an outcry that raged over Treasure Hill—a massive development proposed for neighboring land that was ultimately purchased as open space (thanks to passage of a $48 million bond). But Murphy’s project isn’t progressing because it’s a paradigmatic lesser of two evils. “Rory succeeds because he doesn’t overreach, per se, on these projects … and he considers the community that’s impacted,” says Mayor Andy Beerman. “People respect Rory despite the fact that he’s developing something they may not want developed.”
In the case of King’s Crown, Murphy and his partners met and listened to “everybody involved,” including the neighbors and local community, and they created a development that—until the backhoes set to work—largely flew under the radar. “When you’re going to the city with 247 platted lots and you say, ‘Hey, we want to build 59 units,’ they’re going to listen,” says Murphy of the process. “I think it’s outside of the norm to be voluntarily dramatically decreasing your density, voluntarily doubling the affordable housing—because you know that’s such a crucial issue in town—and offering to provide a conservation easement, too: our project is 83 percent open space.”
In other words, the soft-spoken, self-deprecating Murphy knows his audience. And his audience, the community, knows him.
Murphy landed on the Park City scene in 1994 as the director of operations for United Park City Mines (UPCM), a company whose assets had shifted from silver ore to water and real estate. A former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne (whose military career ended at age 22 with a broken back), the Vermont transplant came to the West equipped with ski-area know-how thanks to his previous job as natural resources director at Bolton Valley Ski Area. Once in Utah, aside from heading up UPCM’s Silver Mine Adventure (a now defunct tour in the Ontario Mine, located on Marsac Avenue), Murphy got his first blast of Park City–style controversy with the highly contentious Flagstaff development, now known as Empire Pass.
“It was an expansion of skiing for Deer Valley, and it was very controversial. People loved that canyon,” he recalls. Watchdog group Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth (CARG) formed in opposition to Flagstaff and loudly protested the development of what many locals considered their communal backyard. In the end, as Murphy puts it, “everyone gave a little bit.” While the canyon was protected to an extent, the ski-in, ski-out development that now peppers Empire Pass translated into a rallying cry for open space preservation—echoes of which led to conservation of lands, from Round Valley to Bonanza Flat, and various acreage in between, including Treasure Hill.
After Flagstaff, Murphy worked on a slew of other UPCM projects before branching out on his own (alongside a couple of partners) with Silver Star, an ambitious mountainside project involving a ski lift, ski runs, historical preservation, nonprofit Sundance Institute as a tenant, and then-groundbreaking affordable-housing components. Since then, he’s teamed up with a small, rotating crop of similarly longtime, well-rooted locals—such as Hans Fuegi, Chris Conabee, Murphy’s ex-wife Ellen Hotung, and Jana Potter—on projects ranging from King Road and Fox Bay to a couple of Deer Crest neighborhoods and 820 Park Ave (formerly a historic train depot and now home to hip eatery Harvest, as well as condos).
“The complexion of the town has shifted, which really has a lot more to do with ski areas becoming more big business and less locally owned and operated mountains,” Murphy says. “Any development in the old days was very, very controversial. It’s always controversial, just in different ways. You just have to be sensitive to the neighbors and the community, and try to address a lot of issues.”
As he’s worked through the process time and again, Murphy’s biggest takeaway is the need for consensus. “Everyone’s opinion matters,” he asserts. “And everyone has something to add. You can not get approved, or you can listen to everybody.”
With nearly three decades in town—raising a family in the Old Town and Prospector neighborhoods, serving on the planning commission and myriad boards and committees (from road commissions to Sundance Institute’s Utah Advisory Board), and even running for city council—Murphy knows many of the stakeholders involved, and he’s witnessed firsthand a rapidly changing community.
With more growth on the horizon on the city’s periphery, such as Silver Creek and Mayflower, he recognizes the obvious drawbacks of “people, traffic, and impact”—but also notes benefits. “When you’re in [a changing town], all you can think about is how different it is and how it’s upsetting your routine. But to live in a dynamic place like Park City is, in my mind, a heck of a lot preferable to living in a stagnant place such as Vermont, where I’m from. You can’t buy a job in Vermont,” he says. “Let’s face it: this town is incredibly dynamic. It has been changing constantly—up, down, and sideways—since the day it was first settled.”
Murphy doesn’t take his role in the changing landscape lightly, and he stresses the critical importance of town-wide issues, such as housing and open space. In the case of King’s Crown, the effort to preserve not just site-specific open space but also contiguous open space, to ensure protected wildlife habitat, is deliberate. He’s also had a hand in negotiating open space preservation deals on behalf of landowners, such as with the Gillmor family’s Clark Ranch, a swath spanning 350 acres in Quinn’s Junction, plus another 450 acres, known as Pace Meadow, near Home Depot. “That deal [Clark Ranch] never would have happened without Rory, who represented the seller,” says Beerman. “It’s something he never gets credit for.” Along with his day job, Murphy also serves as an advisor to the Huntsman family and the aforementioned Florence Gillmor estate, and he consults on a hotel project at Powder Mountain.
Recently remarried to a fellow Vermonter, who relocated to join him in Utah, Murphy keeps his roots grounded where his projects continue to grow.
“This is still the best place to live in the world. I don’t know why you’d want to live anywhere else,” he says. “Park City is a unique place; it’s a wonderful place. I never fail to see the beauty of it, and I love the people who live here.”