Controversial flagpole near Tooele Valley Airport comes down — for now

The flagpole is the latest factor in a nearly two-decade conflict between Salt Lake City and the Kunz family.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large flagpole stands adjacent to the Tooele Valley Airport in Erda, Thursday, July 27, 2023. The flagpole was taken down after a judge ordered its temporary removal last month.

Flights at Tooele Valley Airport can take off and land without fear of striking an 80-foot flagpole near the runway. For now.

A judge ordered the temporary takedown last month after Salt Lake City, which owns the Tooele airport, sued the flagpole’s owners and the city of Erda in July. Officials alleged the pole was a safety hazard that hindered flights in and out of the airport from dusk until dawn.

The flagpole will remain grounded at least until the issue can be further discussed Thursday during a preliminary hearing before 3rd District Judge Douglas Hogan. A final ruling will then determine its fate.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A large flagpole stands adjacent to the Tooele Valley Airport in Erda, Thursday, July 27, 2023.

The city’s lawsuit, filed in 3rd District Court, was the latest move in a nearly two-decade conflict between the Kunz family, whose members own plots abutting the Tooele County airport, and Salt Lake City.

The family, including matriarch Barbara and son Neil, erected the flagpole in May in tribute to Dick Kunz, the family patriarch and veteran who died in 2013, the Tooele Transcript Bulletin reported. They deny Salt Lake City’s allegations, according to court papers filed in response to the lawsuit.

[Read more: Neighbor’s flagpole disrupts medical, firefighting flights at Tooele airport, Salt Lake City alleges]

Salt Lake City’s attorneys asked for a preliminary injunction Aug. 9, asking that the flagpole be reduced from 80-feet to to no more than 16-feet, as per Federal Aviation Administration guidance. The motion accused the Kunz family of using the flagpole as “extrajudicial means to thwart air traffic from arriving and departing safely from the Tooele Valley Airport” — a stoppage the family sought, and were later denied, in 2020.

The Kunz family’s attorneys argued in response that Salt Lake City has “no right to occupy or use any portion of the Landowners’ property, [and] aircraft pass over the Landowners’ property on a daily basis.” Neil Kunz told the Tooele Transcript Bulletin that “I call [the flagpole] our fence. I never in my life thought I would need to build an 80-foot-high fence to protect my property.”

Salt Lake City first sought air rights over the family’s property in 2004, about five years after it acquired the airport. The city and the Kunz family never reached a deal, and the city began a condemnation process in 2007, which the family fought in court. A judge dismissed the condemnation proceedings in 2018, ruling that the city didn’t follow due process.

Since then, Kunz attorneys said in their motion, the city tried again in 2019 to acquire an aviation easement, but officials did not get a new appraisal and instead used a valuation from 2007.

Kunz family attorneys also argued that Salt Lake City had “expressly suggested, on many occasion, aircraft were not using the airspace above [the Kunz’s] property.” They cited earlier court filings in a separate case, including an instance where Salt Lake City said “aircraft using [Tooele Valley Airport]’s instrument-landing system do not invade the physical space over the property of the Kunz Parties.”

Following Salt Lake City’s motion for a preliminary injunction, 3rd District Judge Teresa Welch issued a temporary restraining order to address immediate safety concerns, ruling that the Kunz family should purchase a light to place atop the pole.

While the family did purchase and install a red light on top of the pole, Salt Lake City argued it wasn’t an FAA-approved light. Hogan subsequently ordered that the flagpole be temporarily taken down in mid-September, ahead of preliminary hearing arguments.

That order allowed Salt Lake City to enter the family’s property and deconstruct the flagpole. Salt Lake City initially paid for the removal, the order states, but the court will decide who will ultimately bear the costs.

If Hogan rules against Salt Lake City’s preliminary injunction Thursday, the city must re-erect the pole, according to the order.