Midvale family wins fight with developer
After more than a decade fighting county officials and developers over a Midvale shopping center, Pearl Meibos and her family have finally come out on top.
The Utah Supreme Court sided with the family this week in a fight over the Family Center shopping complex, which boxed in her family's century-old homestead with little room to spare.
For shoppers, the ruling means the Ross Dress for Less and Bed, Bath & Beyond stores on Fort Union Boulevard could be partially torn down. Some of the Wal-Mart parking lot also could be torn out.
For members of Meibos' Croxford family - who refused to sell their land and homes to developer Hermes Associates Ltd. - the victory represents much more.
"It was about being treated as citizens by the county, and not like we were less than Hermes because we weren't as rich," Meibos said. "Our government completely deserted us and left us at the hands of the developers who were destroying our property."
Reflecting back on the development deal, forged in the early 1990s, former Salt Lake County Commissioner Brent Overson expressed regret. Overson and Commissioner Randy Horiuchi voted to redevelop the land at 7200 S. 900 East to expand the center, offering Hermes $4.3 million in tax subsidies to build it.
"The Hermes [redevelopment decision] was the biggest mistake I ever made in my political career," Overson said Wednesday. "It was bad from the onset. The Supreme Court decision set right the things that were done wrong."
The justices on Tuesday upheld 3rd District Judge Tyrone Medley's 2004 order requiring Hermes to tear down part of the stores to provide a landscaped buffer zone between the stores and the family's property. Hermes also would have to widen access roads that must also be given curbs, gutters and sidewalks.
Jeffrey Hunt, who represented the family in the appeal, called the ruling a "total vindication."
"The message to developers is if you charge ahead and construct your buildings in the face of notice from landowners that you are violating county ordinances, you bear the risk," he said.
Hermes attorney Mark Morris said the ruling was disappointing. His clients will now mull options to comply with Medley's order, he said.
"The position we have always taken is that no judge ever found that we knowingly violated any zoning ordinances," Morris said. "What we did was build a building knowing that a neighbor disagreed with the county's interpretation."
Morris won't say whether his client is considering to offer the family money to settle the case short of demolition.
Meibos said Hermes representatives have said in the past that they would rather have their buildings torn down than settle the case. "If it's up to me, they tear the buildings down," she said. "But it's a family decision."
The family is also still pursuing other claims against Hermes, namely an allegation that the developer violated the family's water rights to a surface canal that once ran across their property.
The legal dispute began in 1991, five years before the land was annexed into Midvale. The case led to a political scandal that was followed by a change in county government, from a commission form to a mayor-council system.
Back then, the county was governed by three commissioners. Acting as a redevelopment agency, the commission declared the development area, once home to the historic Fort Union, was blighted. Most landowners sold.
The Croxford family was the lone holdout.
Before construction, the family told Hermes and the county that the redevelopment plan encroached on their property and restricted access for public services, such as sanitation, fire, and snow removal.
But the county forged ahead, approving a permit for Hermes, which would box in the family's property with 198,929 square feet of commercial space among three buildings.
Each building was more than 25 feet high and included loading docks, trash compacting facilities that operate in the middle of the night, and floodlights shining into the homes. Firetrucks and snowplows, which need large turning areas, could not access their road.
The family filed lawsuits charging the county with violating county ordinances. The case went to Utah's high court three times, with the justices eventually sending the case back to Medley to determine if the family had suffered damages that would allow them to force Hermes to remove the offending portions of the buildings. Medley ruled the family had suffered.
Overson, a Republican who served as a county commissioner from 1993 to 2000, said he regrets the negative impact the development had on Meibos and her relatives.
Horiuchi, a Democrat who now serves on the county's nine-person council, was less apologetic.
"Back in the early 1990s, we felt the project met all the legal bounds and ordinances. We also felt it was important for the county's tax base," Horiuchi said. "Every decision we made was in lockstep with legal advice from our attorneys."
In hindsight, would Horiuchi have done things differently?
"I would have had our lawyers do more due diligence," he said.
Former Commissioner Jim Bradley, a Democrat and current county councilman, had voted against the development for a number of reasons. A statement he issued in 1994 detailed those reasons: "I oppose this agreement because I believe, quite simply, that Salt Lake County has cut a bad deal."
On Wednesday, Bradley voiced regret for what happened to Pearl Meibos and her family.
"The developer built the project around them in an atrocious manner - a cinder-block fortress on three sides," Bradley said. "They were bullied by the developer."
Hermes must submit a plan to comply with Medley's order to the court. Spokespersons for Bed, Bath and Beyond and Ross Dress For Less declined to comment Wednesday.
Phillip Hill, Midvale's economic development director, said he did not expect Tuesday's ruling to have much impact on the tax base of Midvale, which was never a party to the court case.
"Those walls will have to be moved," Hill said.
Meibos said her family is overjoyed with this week's ruling. Her sister, a schoolteacher at a small Oregon school, was so excited by the ruling she made an announcement over the intercom.
"We have been vindicated that we do have rights," Meibos said. You simply can't take someone's property away from them because you covet it."
The family hopes to use any money it might get from the remaining claims in their lawsuit to spruce up their property. The hand-built adobe homes, she said, have fallen into disrepair since the family has spent some $250,000 in legal bills.
Three strikes; Will
Hermes be out?
This week's ruling marks the third time the high court has considered the case against developer Hermes Associates Ltd. over the Family Center shopping project:
l The justices threw out a $4.3 million tax subsidies deal offered to developers for the expansion project in 1996.
l The high court ruled in 2001 that the developers deliberately encroached on a family's property, and that county commissioners didn't follow their own rules when they made special exceptions.
l The court said this week that the family can force the developer to tear down portions of the encroaching portions of three stores abutting their property.