Residents sue Saratoga Springs over alleged illegal meeting
Saratoga Springs • A perceived lack of transparency, lost zoning records and an explanation on the part of two Saratoga Springs City Council members for a private conversation that took place during an open meeting have prompted some residents in this Utah County community to pursue a legal battle.
On Nov. 13, City Council members discussed a rezoning ordinance to a current undeveloped piece of land that would allow triplex apartments in Saratoga Springs Development an upscale neighborhood with $500,000 lakefront property surrounded by a golf course adjacent to Utah Lake.
The change would allow the landowners, Capital Assets Financial Services, to develop the nearly 12-acre property with fewer buildings with more people in them. The mansion-style apartments are divided into three family units. But the homeowners association where the development is proposed doesn't want to see a mixed development created.
""We don't want duplexes and triplexes taking over our area," said Neighbors Against Density Abuse (NADA) president Troy Jenkins, who lives on Centennial Boulevard, which is on the street of the development. "We don't want the city of Saratoga to be a multiÂÂfamily-housing city."
To that end, a civil suit was filed in 4th District Court on Dec. 12 by NADA a group of more than 1,000 residents against Saratoga Springs on allegations of violating the state open and public meetings law and also passing an illegal ordinance. The lawsuit asks the judge to find the city at fault for violating the Open and Public Meetings Act and reverse the council's decision and pay for legal fees.
In addition to the court battle, Utah County certified a petition recently will allow the rezoning ordinance to be voted on by residents in November.
Saratoga Springs planning director Jim McNulty told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier that Green Springs Manor the planned development has been part of the city's master plan since 1998. He said the issue is "dividing the community" but all the residents' referendum in November will do is delay when shovels start hitting the ground.
"We don't think it is going to change the project," he said.
NADA member Barbie Riccardelli said she's pleased residents will vote on the zoning issue this November.
"They need to listen to us," she said of city officials, adding that residents in Saratoga Springs worried about open areas transforming into crowded higher-density units.
The group is working on an initiative to repeal the existing overlay and future abilities for the city to allow higher density development above that permitted under city zoning regulations known as a Planned Unit Development (PUD).
A question of an open meeting violation came on Nov. 13, when City Council members Rebecca Call and Shellie Baertsch went from talking to each other in a meeting to leaving the chambers to "meet privately" with the city manager and city attorney, according to court records. There was no vote to close the meeting or a public announcement to have a private meeting, court records state. When the two came back in about 10 minutes later, according to several in attendance, the vote on the controversial ordinance was made and approved with both women voting in favor of the zone change along with Bernard "Bud" Poduska, according to court records. The two other council members voted against it.
However, Brigham Young University communications professor Joel Campbell, an expert on Utah's public meetings laws, said it's likely the city didn't technically violate any law since there weren't enough people to make up a quorum at the meeting. Campbell pointed out by state law there need to be at least three council members out of the five to make a quorum. But that doesn't mean the city employees couldn't have been more transparent, he said.
"It is troubling they would do this without thinking how the public views this," Campbell said. "You really shouldn't have two people just up and leave; you should do it as a body ... Otherwise, it ends up raising a lot of questions."
Baertsch declined to comment on what she discussed with Call behind closed doors and her reasoning for voting, citing the ongoing litigation.
Call wouldn't tell residents either until a senior member of NADA emailed her asking why she voted the way she did despite months of opposition from the home owners association about the rezoning plans for the development.
In an email, Call responded that she and Baertsch would rather see a different development but feared a lawsuit by the developer.
"We both do not encourage nor agree with granting any additional mid to high density in the city ... if we had made the opposite decision, we would have been legally and morally obligated to pay detrimental reliance to the developer; for I believe those decisions made long ago entitled him to something we would now be taking away," Call wrote in the email.
Call was referring to what previous City Councils granted to the developer who understood the land to be zoned for multi-family homes, but it was never officially recorded that way. She said if the entire city was willing to take on the repercussions for voting against the zone change, "we would have voted that way."
Call then encouraged the NADA member to "convince" residents this is why she voted yes, according to the December email.
Residents in the Talon's Cove golf course neighborhood say they just want the zoning to go back to a place for single family homes.
"No one is against development," said resident Jimmy Kawato, who added they just want to keep the uncrowded lots that were originally zoned for the area.
The city plans to move forward with the development even if the rezoning is repealed. Initially, the city thought it needed to rezone the area, but later realized because of a Saratoga Springs Master Development Agreement in 2000 that included the PUD on the low-density property still allowed them to accomplish what they want.