Thursday, June 09, 2005

Can They Do That?

The debate on-going in recent weeks between Salt Lake City and North Salt Lake over the development of bench property has been an interesting item. The issue involves 100 acres of land just south of the Eaglewood Golf Course in North Salt Lake, on a beautiful high bench created by Lake Bonneville. The land is owned by the City of North Salt Lake. 20 of those acres are in North Salt Lake, but the remaining 80 acres lies across the county line and in the incorporated boundaries of Salt Lake City. Reportedly, developers are interested in continuing residential development south onto the property, and North Salt Lake is willing to sell so they can use the money for other needs.

Before any of this can happen, however, Salt Lake City needs to either allow the development to proceed under their jurisdiction, or allow the property to deannex and be annexed into North Salt Lake. A number of area residents on both sides of the county line are decrying the imminent loss of what they call a wonderful natural area where people love to hike and take walks.

North Salt Lake officials have countered with a proposal that would develop only about 20 acres of the site for residential, use part of the property for a city cemetary, and leave about 50 acres in its natural state.

After considerable back and forth, Salt Lake City took the extreme action of denying the request for deannexation, and then zoning the property for "Natural Open Space." See DesNews story for a recap of that action.

The issue is kicking up a lot of emotion. The Deseret News editorialized in favor of keeping the property undeveloped, with the caveat that the land should be sold to Salt Lake City "so it can preserve it as open space." This makes a good point, as North Salt Lake mayor Kay Briggs has said the rezone to natural open space would be an unconstitutional "taking" of property.

And I must say, I'm inclined to agree with the mayor. Personally, I'm kind of partial to the idea of keeping the area natural and undeveloped, because I love to tramp around in the foothills. But for a city to zone private property (and make no mistake -- this is private property, even though it is owned by a public entity -- it could easily be sold for private development at a considerable price) to a category where it can only be used for "Open Space," smacks of not giving heed to all those warnings we get from attorneys and the courts when we enact zoning regulations, that we must leave some "viable economic use" of the property if we are to avoid takings claims. If we want to keep property like this for benefit of the public, then we should in all likelihood be buying it, not just zoning it for our benefit.

I don't know the details of the zone that Salt Lake City staff will be creating for this property, but I find it hard to believe that it will pass legal muster if it prevents all development on the property.

And the debate between residents on what should happen to this property is an interesting story in itself. Stan Porter, the North Salt Lake Planning Commission chair, critcized the mayor and council for not using the planning commission for recommendations on what should happen to the property. "It would go better if we had public support" for what the mayor is proposing, Porter said. "We don't know what the public support is."

A number of North Salt Lake residents have spoken at meetings in both cities, saying they would prefer to see the land remain undeveloped.

Conversely, some residents have stated they do not have a problem with continued development of the hillside bench. In a letter to the editor, George Lawrence of North Salt Lake said, "What about all those newcomers who aspire to move up to the foothills? Do they not also deserve the opportunity?"

One problem that has not been talked about is if the land is developed as North Salt Lake proposes as part of North Salt Lake City, there will be a portion that will be across the county line in Salt Lake County. This can cause all kinds of weird problems, like residents whose children are actually in the Salt Lake City School District rather than in the Davis District, and having to vote in Salt Lake County elections and special districts, when for all practical purposes they have nothing to do with Salt Lake County.

This same situation faced the developers of South Mountain in Draper, where neighborhoods were divided by the Salt Lake-Utah County line. Changes were made in the state code and even in the state constitution to try and address this problem, which was somewhat successful. But North Salt Lake's property extends more than 1,000 feet south of the county line into Salt Lake County, so at least a portion will have to remain in Salt Lake County, while in every other way those residents would be part of North Salt Lake City. One of those little quirks that can become big problems.


At 3:55 PM, Blogger Tyler Farrer said...

As I understand it there has been talk of annexing the 80 acres of land to North Salt Lake. That is the talk I heard from Mayor Briggs at a recent public forum held in North Salt Lake. Salt Lake City doesn't have any entrance to the land and it is useless to them for development. If the land is developed by NSL, our Fire Dept, Police Dept would service it. It is completely improper for Salt Lake City to zone the land in this way, or for anyone, including SLC Council members, to trespass on the property--no matter how good the view.

At 5:56 PM, Blogger B J Mangold said...

The "takings" issue is very complex legally. For a superb discussion of this and a fuller understanding of what private property is and what it is based on and what are the responsibilities of private property owners versus public ownership rights and responsibilities read Eric Freyfogle's book The Land We Share. Based on an examination of past court cases as explained by Freyfogle, most probably there would not be a "takings".

Bonnie Mangold

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Ralph Becker said...

This issue has a long history and important context for planning in Utah. I've been involved with this matter since the mid-1990's when I was on the SLC Planning Commission, and have been involved in many discussions with community members from both cities in the current dispute. Ten years ago SLC and NSL agreed to preserve this property undeveloped through planning and zoning. Unfortunately, the cities/parties did not complete all the steps to secure that future.

I don't want to go into the great detail this issue deserves, but please realize that many of the statements reflected in press reports are either out of context or inaccurate, and reflect a lot of posturing.

If you haven't been on the property, stopped for a moment and observed its unique and valuable features, it is difficult to appreciate the fervor many of us have for retaining this area as open space; I'd encourage anyone to go there and note the unique topography that allows a person to be on a 1000'-wide Bonneville Bench with no sight of development, only a view out across the Lake and up into the Wasatch Mountain foothills. When developed, we would lose the last opportunity to retain a place/geoantiquity in the region that gives such a complete sense of the Bonneville Bench.

The legal and political issues are challenging. The opportunity to obtain millions of dollars is understandably attractive to NSL. The obligation and desire to keep this property open space is understandably wanted by SLC. The legal issues can be, and may be, argued all the way through the Court system. My own analysis does not lead to clear-cut legal conclusions -- both sides have merit.

I remain hopeful that the cities will find a way to respect each other's perspective and find a solution. It is too simplistic to say it is a taking or that North Salt Lake has a right to develop this property. It is equally simplistic to say that NSL deserves no compensation beyond the value of this property as naturalized open space. And, another private property owner (the Hunter family) deserves to be part of any solution.

If the cities (both) want to work out a solution, one can be obtained. So far, despite some sincere efforts on both sides, the will hasn't existed to move beyond rhetoric and enter into good faith negotiaions for a solution. An independent party with great expertise, the Trust for Public Lands (and Utah Open Lands), has come to the table, but awaits a commitment from both cities before it moves further towards a solution.

It's time to tone down the rhetoric. I hope for the sake of a regional benefit, a mutually agreed upon solution will be reached with the land preserved and NSL compensated reasonably.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger Wilf said...

Thanks for the comments, particularly from Bonnie Mangold and Ralph Becker. I know that I am particularly concerned about property in the foothills in the community I live in, Kaysville, that was bought by the city and set aside as a natural area. The property now carries a portion of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, and is used by many people to just have a place to get away and hike. Every so often we hear of plans by city officials to perhaps look at selling or developing the property. Many of us think the city has an obligation to keep it for what it was purchased for. Hence, Bonnie, you may be right that there are different standards that public owners of property are to be held to.

Ralph, you and I have talked before about this property, but I did not realize the history of it as you pointed out in your comments. Some course in between the two extremes may make some sense here, given that background. I'll see what I can do to help this along.

At 12:11 AM, Blogger Former Centerville Citizen said...

This is an issue that I'm torn on myself. I will say this though, if North Salt Lake is going to do anything with the land, a priority needs to be setting aside at least fifteen acres of it as cemetery space. Fifteen acres may sound like too much, but when you consider that people are always going to be dying, and that you'll always need a place to put them, you can never have too much cemetery land. If you want to see a perfect example of what happens when a city doesn't set aside enough cemetery space, just look at Centerville (check my postings on this issue at There are other cities on the Wasatch Front that would do good by creating their own cemeteries instead of relying on those in other communities, but burial space isn't much of a priority for most city officials I know. I suggested that Fruit Heights should get its own cemetery, and the council discussed it at a meeting back in January and agreed that the city needed one, but as far as I know, it hasn't been discussed since. But anyhow, North Salt Lake is big enough now that it should have its own cemetery, even if it means putting it in the foothills. And I'm not a big fan of hillside development, but at least a cemetery isn't very obtrusive, as opposed to million-dollar mansions.

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