Holladay rejects voter petition on former Cottonwood Mall site but schedules special election just in case

In moves Holladay officials hoped would resolve community conflict over the former Cottonwood Mall site, city leaders have voted to schedule a special election for November.

At the same time, the city has notified a community group that its 8,000-signature petition seeking a vote on the issue is ineligible for a spot on the ballot.

So will there be a special election? That, it appears, will be up to a judge.

Holladay officials have argued for months that the city’s decisions in approving a high-density, $560 million mixed-use development at the vacant field that was once a mall have been administrative and not legislative, which the city interprets to mean they can’t be challenged through a grass-roots initiative process.

Leaders for the community group Unite For Holladay said Monday they were disappointed Holladay’s leaders “have opted to block citizens from voting.”

Mayor Rob Dahle said the City Council’s combined moves were “pre-emptive” and that rejecting the petition, while simultaneously approving a vote, was a kind of “just in case” strategy aimed at accommodating conflicting community needs. The approach, Dahle said, respected “the referendum power of the people and a property owner’s land use application rights.”

This way, Dahle said, if the city’s legal decision rejecting the Unite for Holladay petition were overturned in court, Holladay officials would be ready for a vote on the controversy at the city’s soonest opportunity.

The City Council had until Aug. 22 to schedule the special election, which is now set for Nov. 6.

“We would not have called for a special election if we were 100 percent certain that our position was the right position,” the mayor said. “We conceded that the law is not really clear as it is related to this issue.”

Developers with Ivory Homes and Woodbury Corp. have been working for years to turn the former Cottonwood Mall location into “Holladay Quarter,” envisioned as a complex of retail outlets, eateries and offices blended with 775 apartments and 210 single-family homes. After nearly seven months of negotiations, the council gave its final approval to a master plan in May.

Opponents say the project is too dense for Holladay and threatens to snarl traffic. They remain critical of how city officials have handled decisions related to land use and taxes.

Dahle said the dispute has “proven to be a divisive issue in our community,” but, despite the differences, “all sides would like this to be resolved as quickly as possible.”

In a joint statement, Paul Baker and Brett Stohlton, organizers of Unite for Holladay, called the city’s rejection of the petition “another example of our elected city leaders ignoring the voice of the people by essentially forcing a lawsuit against their own taxpaying citizens.”

Baker and Stohlton said city leaders have acknowledged the group filed well more than the 5,874 signatures required to qualify for ballot status and that organizers of Unite for Holladay “did our part to ensure all citizens had a voice in this issue.”

Dahle said he had no doubt the signature requirements had indeed been met but noted the city’s rejection was made on legal grounds, which the city has been told Unite For Holladay is planning to take to court.

“And we’re OK with that,” Dahle said.

In a statement issued Friday, Holladay City Attorney Todd Godfrey said that while the city contends that key zoning decisions that cleared the project to proceed "are administrative in nature, we acknowledge that the sponsors of the petitions have a contrary opinion, and that may require a final determination by the courts.”

Baker and Stohlton, meanwhile, said they have consulted attorneys “familiar with these issues” and remain “confident the court will rule in our favor.” The group leaders also said they “are committed and prepared for the next phase in our fight.”