Millcreek cancels blight study in the face of opposition from residents

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Leaders in Millcreek voted Monday to cancel a study of blight in key neighborhoods after residents voiced opposition to the idea of giving the city additional powers to condemn and force the sale of private property, known as eminent domain.

Millcreek • City leaders voted Monday to terminate a controversial study of blight across key neighborhoods in Millcreek after pushback from residents worried it would create new municipal powers to condemn private property.

Nearly 100 residents and business owners turned out Monday night for what was to be a final public hearing on the blight study, which Millcreek launched in May over a 164-acre area straddling Highland Drive and 3300 South between Highland and 900 East.

The crowd — overwhelmingly opposed by a show of hands to both the study and any added city powers of eminent domain it might have created — erupted in loud applause when the Millcreek City Council voted unanimously to defeat it.

“The witch is dead!” a sympathetic Mayor Jeff Silvestrini told the audience. “Our council has heard you loud and clear.”

Officials with the newly incorporated city south of Salt Lake City considered designating those neighborhoods as disused and needing improvement as part of a larger strategy aimed at encouraging redevelopment of portions of Millcreek and construction of a new downtown center.

The city is also creating three community reinvestment areas — including one focused on Millcreek’s core, along Highland Drive near Brickyard Plaza — in hopes of plowing millions of dollars in tax money into upgrading the new city’s roads, sidewalks and municipal services and creating conditions to encourage private developers to step in.

The blight study, officials said, was one more tool to that end. Under state law, a blight label would have granted Millcreek expanded powers over five years to condemn and buy out privately held parcels, a level of authority that Silvestrini and other officials said would have allowed the city to better help residents and businesses interested in relocating as the city improves.

But several groups of Millcreek homeowners and prominent businesses organized to actively fight the plan, fearing the city’s expanded powers of eminent domain left them vulnerable to being forced out and their properties taken by the city.

Opposition organizer Tina Grant also drew her own round of applause when she and another organizer, Aaron Walker, approached the podium to thank the council for abolishing the study. “I hope this is over and done for good,” Walker said, “and we don’t see another one of these in two years, five years or whatever."

Mike Gibson, representing Tres Hombres Mexican Grill & Cantina on Highland Drive, said since the study began, the well-known Millcreek eatery “felt like we had a big bull’s eye right on our head." He praised city leaders for reversing course.

“On behalf of business owners worried for their lives and homeowners worried for their homes, we thank you,” Gibson said. “We looked forward to working together with a plan that makes everybody happy.”

Some council members on Monday even offered their apologies for putting residents through worries that eminent domain might have left them vulnerable to eviction. City officials only considered using those powers in “rare, rare instances, if at all,” Councilwoman Silvia Catten said. “It was never our intention to take anybody’s property.”

“My sincerest apologies to anyone who has suffered sleepless nights over this,” Catten said.

Councilwoman Bev Uipi urged city staff and elected officials to be more thoughtful in vetting future policy proposals affecting property rights. “Let’s have a conversation and not cause this much heartache,” Uipi said.

Councilwoman Cheri Jackson said if there was “a silver lining” in the dispute, it was renewed evidence of the passion Millcreek residents feel for improving their community. Echoing that, Councilman Dwight Marchant, along with Silvestrini, encouraged residents to stay involved in planning Millcreek’s future, particularly the new reinvestment areas.

“It’s all of our goal to make our city better,” the mayor said. “But when we get told by a majority of people that we’re going in the wrong direction and you don’t like this, thank you for letting us know that. That’s why we’re here.”