Running away from nature lovers but into the hearts of soccer moms, the City Council ended a simmering debate over a $40 million sports complex along the Jordan River on Tuesday with a surprisingly unanimous nod.
Honoring the 2003 bond vote, it turns out, trumped lingering environmental questions.
Still, a mushrooming green group convinced soccer fields will ravage the wildlife and wildlands vows to appeal in 3rd District Court.
The vote concludes a six-year controversy that in recent weeks has ensnared Mayor Ralph Becker's administration with allegations it is forsaking the largest, last undeveloped chunk of open space along the Jordan and his open-space credentials.
Critics panned the complex planned for 2200 North as a "pay to play" playground for the rich and elite.
But a game group of soccer enthusiasts, who argue young players are underserved and that tournaments could be an economic boon, blunted the opposition.
Becker always trumpeted the proposed 23-acre natural area that would rim the 13 fields and include a river buffer that averages more than 220 feet. But the vote to release the $15.3 million bond and cash Real Salt Lake's $7.5 million gift agreement came with more conservation strings. The motion calls on the mayor to present a detailed restoration plan that may require a bigger buffer, reconfiguration of the fields, and possible private-land purchase.
The state deeded the 160 acres to the city for virtually no expense last year.
"We voted for this -- it won in 2003. And it didn't win on deception," said Councilman Luke Garrott, insisting a recreation and restoration area can coexist for visitors -- not all of whom will be players.
Councilwoman Jill Remington Love agreed an "outdoor classroom" -- scores of residents called for a nature preserve instead -- would not happen without the fields. And she countered the contention of enviros and Councilman Soren Simonsen that the complex violates the area's open-space zoning. "Putting something on the ballot is the ultimate in planning."
Others, including former Councilwoman Nancy Saxton, said the "boondoggle" exposes the city to litigation.
"This is the wrong spot," Jan Bartlett scolded the council. "It's almost as though you're representing the administration" as toadies.
Instead of two sprawling soccer centers in the Salt Lake Valley, the petition-wielding Jordan River Restoration Network pushed for the renovation of the one that already exists in West Jordan. After all, it already has 23 fields, could be rebuilt for tournaments for less money, and it sits on land owned by Salt Lake City.
Tonight, the West Jordan City Council will weigh whether to launch a $14,700 study of the run-down fields as well as for a nearby 53-acre parcel. West Jordan last hosted a regional tournament in 2003 at the largest soccer complex in the state. But leaders of the U.S. Youth Soccer Association vowed not to bring another tournament there without improvements to the trampled, uneven fields.
Paul Burke, a past president of Utah Youth Soccer, says tournaments at the new complex could drive dollars since it is close to the airport, freeway and downtown hotels. Even so, naysayers note it flies in the face of Becker's oft-cited walkability and transit-oriented goals.
But former Mayor Rocky Anderson said a change of location would be an "enormous betrayal," that would jeopardize the $7.5 million check from RSL. "Dave Checketts is probably praying that you change the location," Anderson said.
Indeed, City Attorney Ed Rutan warned that the ability to issue the bond would be "undercut" if the location changed.
If the geography is now settled, the politics aren't. Longtime conservationist Jeff Salt says the move has crippled Becker's reputation with the environmental community. And since Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon was a key architect of Blueprint Jordan River, a vision document to protect the corridor, Salt says his silence may haunt him in the governor's race.
"The Republicans are going to eat him alive over this," he said, adding that the real motivation for the complex is to buoy a RSL sports academy. "The soccer fields become a public subsidy for the Real Salt Lake private academy."
For his part, Corroon says he supports the fields so long as the project includes "some protections" of the waterway.
Rosemary Winters and Jeremiah Stettler contributed to this story.
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