A $15.3 million bond approved by Salt Lake City voters for a sports complex along the Jordan River has been upheld by the state’s highest court.
The Utah Supreme Court on Friday affirmed a district court ruling that the 2003 bond was indeed valid, possibly marking the end of a years-long battle between city leaders and environmental activists over the cost, location and planning of the complex.
Salt Lake leaders plan to build 16 soccer fields along the river, near 1900 West and 2200 South.
"We hope this will be the last legal barrier," Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said. "It looks like we will finally be able to move forward."
A group calling itself the Jordan River Restoration Network has fought the city on different legal grounds throughout the years. Friday’s ruling was "disappointing but not surprising," one member said.
"I think the only thing that’s surprising is it took them so long to rubber stamp the wishes of the city and probably other cities that want to tax their residents to support public works," Ray Wheeler said.
Wheeler called the city’s decision to build the complex on a flood plain along the river irresponsible. He worries about destroyed wetlands and impacts on thousands of migratory birds. And because of the location, the projected cost of construction has increased to more than $22 million, while the number of fields promised has been slashed in half, Wheeler said.
"[The complex] is a classic example of wasteful government," he said.
City officials had once planned to build 30 soccer fields and two baseball diamonds on the 220-acre site. Now the plan is to build 16 soccer fields, which could also be used for lacrosse and rugby, and no baseball diamonds.
Foes have tied the city’s hands with litigation over the years. In response, Salt Lake officials took advantage of a rarely used state law called the Bond Validation Act. Essentially, the city sued its residents under the act, giving taxpayers a chance to cross-examine officials in court.
The city advertised the hearing online and in the Intermountain Commercial Record, a move the restoration network believes was intended to limit the number of people who would come to the hearing.
Justice Thomas Lee was the court’s lone dissenter, writing that he believed the city’s publication efforts fell "far short" of what is required by law.
Salt Lake City Attorney Ed Rutan said the Jordan River Restoration Network still has three outstanding lawsuits and challenges to the complex. None, however, would impact the city’s ability to move forward, he said.
"From our point of view, we can go out and proceed to sell the bonds," Rutan said.
Some construction has already begun at the site. The city hopes to resume construction in the spring and have the complex open in summer 2014.
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