Sports field plan sparks feud

Published December 11, 2009 9:44 pm
SLC » Mayor wants to build soccer fields; City Council signed off on preservation.
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Serving two masters is getting sloppy in Salt Lake City.

The capital's altruistic pursuit of youth sports fields in Rose Park and its simultaneous push for environmental protection are pitting the causes against each other in a sort of sudden death.

Mayor Ralph Becker is charging forward with a $41 million plan for a sprawling sports complex west of the Jordan River at 2200 North. City voters approved $15.3 million toward that goal in a 2003 bond election, while Real Salt Lake chipped in a $7.5 million "gift" that expires next year. Becker is negotiating with Salt Lake County to cover the gap of more than $17 million in exchange for letting the county run the facility.

But here's the kicker: In February, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting Envision Utah's "Blueprint Jordan River," a guiding document embraced by a dozen cities and two counties that calls for preserving the waterway's corridor as natural open space.

Fields for soccer, rugby, lacrosse, softball and baseball -- along with parking and a stadium -- don't qualify.

"That location for a sports complex is inconsistent with our recommendation," says Gabe Epperson, Envision's planning director. Fields, unlike a nature preserve, can be built anywhere, he says, "but you can't move the river."

Now, city officials are squirming for explanations about how the policy paths diverged and how to steer toward a resolution.

The sports project, which has seen the price soar and scope shrink, now includes 16 soccer fields -- including one with a 3,000-seat stadium -- four baseball fields, parking, restrooms and concessions. The state earlier this year transferred the title to 160 acres at the site to the city. If the county money doesn't come through, the complex, targeted for May 2011 completion, would have to be built in phases.

"I feel responsible for carrying out the will of the public as expressed in that bond election," Becker says. Although a specific location was not part of the bond question, the mayor insists voters cast their approval "with the knowledge of where the complex would be."

What's more, Becker says, state officials "made it quite clear that if the city doesn't develop this property, they will."

But conservationists -- some in the business of preserving the Jordan River for three decades -- are blowing their whistles.

"It's very disturbing that we cannot get on the same page when this is the greenest city," Nancy Saxton, a former city councilwoman and member of what now is known as the Jordan River Restoration Network, tells the council. "You will set back the city's endeavors centuries if you do this."

The group argues fields don't belong in a flood plain, that inflated costs turn off taxpayers and that the wetlands would best be part of a nature preserve. "We have one chance here," Glendale resident Amy O'Connor tells the council. "Do it for our kids."

Jeff Salt, a Jordan River conservation advocate, says public calls for preservation are under siege. "Salt Lake City is headed for a train wreck," he warns.

Still, soccer officials say the area is woefully underserved for youth fields and needs such a site to generate revenue for regional tournaments. Discussions about an RSL soccer academy are ongoing, including whether to locate it at the Rose Park space. But the team's $7.5 million contribution is neither connected to nor a condition of the academy.

Estimates show the city would bank $330,000 a year if 100 percent of the complex is used. With half, the city would suffer nearly a $283,000 annual hit. The original overall cost of $22 million, which included a more robust 33 fields, has nearly doubled.

"It seems," Epperson says, "like building a soccer complex right now is a bit of a boondoggle."

Becker's sports budget includes money for a natural buffer along the river, a "bio-swale" to filter nitrates and phosphates and a corridor for wildlife habitat. It also calls for completion of the Jordan River Trail to Davis County and nearly a half-million dollars for fenced "natural areas."

"That would be an important component of the site," Becker says, adding that the pushback is "certainly not enough to dissuade me."

Councilman Luke Garrott says he doesn't see a conflict of values because both the mayor and council have demonstrated a commitment to conservation. "I don't see a lot of groundswell for a nature center," he says. "It's an easy one for me -- if we can protect the river."

Critics have floated several alternate spots for the sports fields, including 5600 West near California Avenue, land adjacent to Interstate 215 and 500 South or Rosewood Park east of Rose Park Golf Course near 1000 North and Interstate 15.

"There's nothing that requires that complex go in [the Jordan River] site," Councilman Soren Simonsen says. "This is an opportunity to say, 'We're serious about environmental concerns.' "

Simonsen concedes that the council's support for Blueprint Jordan River and the mayor's push for sports fields alongside the waterway represent an "inherent conflict."

"It seems," Simonsen says, "that it's a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand's doing."

Becker notes the city helped Envision Utah craft its map, but says officials failed to include the 160-acre sports complex. "I don't know how this happened."

None of the parties argues Blueprint is a binding land-use contract. But passing it, without debate, remains a noggin-scratcher.

"It wasn't really anything that we looked at real closely. In fact, we didn't discuss it," Council Chairman Carlton Christensen says. "Maybe we made a mistake -- but again, it doesn't bind us."

Preferring a nature preserve, Poplar Grove resident Barbara Rufenacht alleges "there has not been transparency regarding this plan."

Actually, the mayor and council appear clear -- just clearly in conflict.

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An 'aggressive' construction timeline

Arguing the bidding climate is favorable and noting Real Salt Lake's $7.5 million "gift agreement" expires in a year, Mayor Ralph Becker wants the city to plow ahead on a $41 million sports complex in January.

During the next few months, Becker hopes to nail the final design, lock up contractors and hold one last public hearing. Work on the fields, parking and landscaping would launch in the spring.

The mayor anticipates completion in May 2011, with a grand opening to follow in late August or early September.



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