Mill Hollow neighborhood battles developer, city in court
Cottonwood Heights • Long-running fight over project, state land-use law heads to court.
Published: January 28, 2013 08:08AM
Updated: February 1, 2013 02:37PM

Mill Hollow residents who oppose the construction of two high-rise office buildings and a parking structure near their homes will finally get their day in court.

The 9-acre project, which represents the final phase of the 44-acre Cottonwood Corporate Center development near Interstate 215, advanced with a 4-3 vote from the Cottonwood Heights planning commission last June. The land in question, between 2700 and 2800 E. Cottonwood Parkway, borders a residential neighborhood.

Frustrated homeowners, who in public hearings on the project voiced concerns about noise, crime, traffic and declining property values, filed suit in September against the city and developer Cottonwood Partners in 3rd District Court. The case comes before Judge Anthony Quinn at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

“We understand that it’s a valuable piece of property that should be developed,” said homeowner Hamid Omana. “But develop it as you promised,” he added, referencing land agreements that date back to the mid-1990s.

At that time, developer John West — who is now with Cottonwood Partners — agreed to limit building heights bordering the neighborhood to two stories totalling 154,000 square feet. Parking would also be at street level.

West sold the parcel to Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield of Utah but is now buying it back with the intent to build one four-story and one six-story office structure, together exceeding 263,000 square feet. A two-story parking garage running parallel to residential backyards is also in the plans.

Omana and others point to legal interpretations of Utah’s 2005 Land Use Development Management Act (LUDMA) as roadblocks for construction of the buildings. The city’s zoning for the property specifies two-story or 35-foot height limits but will allow up to six stories if the added height will not adversely affect surrounding land uses. That extended height requires the granting of conditional-use permits.

Municipalities previously had broad discretion to deny those permits and often disadvantaged developers by doing so, Omana said. But the 2005 legislation gave developers an edge by requiring that cities approve developments if appropriate steps could be taken to mitigate any negative impacts.

LUDMA also allows cities to deny conditional-use permits if conditions and standards are not appropriate, Omana added. That wording gives his neighborhood hope that their lawsuit will not be in vain.

The project squeaked through the planning commission in June, with member Lindsay Holt voicing her opposition to the development’s size but voting in favor because the state Legislature “has tied the city’s hands.”

At that time, Commissioner Jennifer Shah praised the project’s design but said it was not necessarily appropriate next to a residential area. However, the planning board lacked firm legal footing to deny the project, Shah said of her reasoning to vote for approval.

“I would not want that in my backyard. I understand why they’re unhappy about it,” Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said. “But according to our attorneys, the land use is permitted.”

At least 50 conditions were placed on the project, Cullimore said. But Omana and his neighbors believe they do little to ease its negative impacts.

Cottonwood Partners agreed to reduce floor heights by three inches, a condition that Omana called “embarrassing.” He also scoffed at the idea that vines growing on the concrete parking garage would allay its ill effect on their homes and property values.

“The city has been hiding behind this LUDMA law and they have been cowardly, so we had to take the fight up,” Omana said. At the same time, he acknowledged that it’s unlikely the judge will rule against a city and planning commission.

However, if the neighborhood does score a win in court, “it would give cities more courage to be more aggressive with conditional-use permits,” Cullimore said.

“Our obligation is to try and apply the law equally,” Cullimore added, “under the guidance of the best land-use attorneys.”

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

Twitter: @catmck

What’s next?

P The case will be heard at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday before 3rd District Judge Anthony Quinn in Salt Lake City.