Wharton: Local government gives up on master plans too easily
The fight between Tavaci developer Terry Diehl, Cottonwood Heights and, soon, Salt Lake County is a classic donnybrook between individual property rights and the good of society.
The developer who is $43 million in debt and recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy thinks he should be allowed to turn what is now a gated community at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon into a development that would include 300 condominiums, a hotel, restaurants and retail space, with some buildings as high as five stories.
On the other side are zoning laws, government master plans and neighborhood groups opposed to turning an important part of eastern Salt Lake County's hillside into a traffic-generating monstrosity.
Diehl bought the property knowing it was zoned for 43 single-unit homes, not a massive commercial development. When he wasn't happy with a compromise offered by Cottonwood Heights, he sued to disconnect from the city and rejoin Salt Lake County. The city recently acquiesced to his demand, citing the escalating cost of continuing the litigation.
But residents have rights, too. They buy property with the expectation that the city and county will honor the zoning laws and master plans that were in place when they made their initial investment.
The problem is that deep-pocketed developers with good political connections, such as Diehl, can hire lawyers and force cash-strapped governments to spend thousands of dollars to fight them in court.
I wrote a column in December 1993 criticizing then-Salt Lake County commissioners Randy Horiuchi and Brent Overson for making an exception to the recently passed hillside ordinance that allowed the road to Tavaci to be built in the first place.
Commissioner Jim Bradley, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said at the time:
"This action shows how fragile our hillside ordinance is. We need to have commissioners willing to back up staff recommendations, planning recommendations and the ordinances themselves. Commissioners ought not to be undercutting any of those things. We are going to live with this decision not during the tenure of our commission terms, but for the rest of our lives. Every time we pass Big Cottonwood Canyon and look at that scar on the mountainside, we'll be reminded of what we did. This is a terrible decision."
In view of the acrimony, expense and long-lasting effects of that decision, Bradley's vote has certainly been vindicated.
Salt Lake County is considering a new plan called the Foothills and Canyon Overlay Zone. As someone who has seen many master plans fall to the whims of well-heeled developers with friends in high places, excuse my cynicism. I figured that even though I said building on this prime piece of foothills property in 1993 was a bad idea, it would eventually be developed. Alas, money and power always seem to win out.