Cottonwood Heights neighbors ask LDS Church to preserve small park instead of selling it for development

Residents say they donated their time and money to help create the community open space on Doverhill Drive, but church leaders have so far signaled no interest in saving it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hope and Ruth Spataro play in a park behind a chapel in Cottonwood Heights on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. The chapel caught fire a few years ago, and the LDS Church wants to sell off the entire property, including the park that neighbors helped build in the 1970s. At rear are Joe and Lyn Spataro.

The small patch of open space sits next to a fire-damaged chapel these days, but neighbors say a park just off East Doverhill Drive in Cottonwood Heights has been part of the fabric of their community for nearly half a century.

Now, officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say they intend to sell the land and developers are already eyeing it for more housing.

“There’s a bunch of people up here who have no walkable green space otherwise,” said Joe Spataro, a nearby homeowner. “It’s a bigger loss than I think most people are perceiving.”

The neighborhood’s next closest alternative is a park on the other side of Wasatch Boulevard, and parents say crossing the busy highway is not safe. Laura Williams said she purchased her home, in part, because her backyard backs up to the chapel land. She’s enjoyed having an area nearby for her children to play.

“Selfishly, I don’t want to see it become a bunch of houses,” Williams said. “Some of us in the neighborhood who aren’t members of that church thought maybe we could fight a little harder.”

The chapel at 3625 E. Doverhill Drive caught fire and was heavily damaged in 2019. Church leaders ultimately opted to sell the building rather than repair it.

Neighbors and elected officials in Cottonwood Heights instead are seeking a compromise: they’ve asked the church to sell off the portion of the property that includes the chapel for redevelopment, but preserve the adjoining three-acre park as open space.

The city could then either buy or lease the park, officials say. So far, the church has not signaled any willingness to strike such a deal.

“They’ve been directed to sell it at the highest and best value they can get,” said Mayor Mike Peterson, who described himself as a faithful member of the church. “We think that’s unfortunate. There should be a sensitivity and interest in the community that has had it for several decades.”

Community members have launched an online petition to demonstrate strong local interest in preserving the open space. As of Monday, the effort had collected at least 630 signatures on behalf of saving the locale of many ball games, bike races and swing set rides over the years, all with sweeping views of the Wasatch Mountains.

What’s more, Peterson and others note, church members contributed cash and labor in the 1970s so the church could build the chapel in the first place. Neighbors then worked together to develop the park into a communal space.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neighborhood residents in a park behind a chapel in Cottonwood Heights on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. The chapel caught fire a few years ago, and the LDS Church wants to sell off the entire property, including the park that neighbors helped build in the 1970s. From left, Laura Williams, Joe, Ruth, Hope, and Lyn Spataro.

“There were a lot of people who donated time and effort and money to make that possible,” said Jim Peters, a 50-year resident and church member who helped lead efforts to build the park.

A 1975 dedication document shared with The Salt Lake Tribune indicates members contributed $191,100 to construct the church building.

“That was 30% of the building cost,” Peters said. “These were young families who were living in the area at the time. They didn’t have a lot of money, so it was a sacrifice to make those contributions.”

Adjusted for inflation, the contribution would be worth nearly $1 million today.

The neighborhood volunteered to build the adjoining park the following year, Peters said. While he didn’t have a dollar figure for that donation, he recalled residents chipping in for appraisals, surveys, design and development. They loaded, hauled and graded an extensive amount of fill dirt. They built bleachers. They installed an irrigation system at no charge.

“My own feeling has been that any contributions you make to the church, you don’t really have a say in what they do with it,” Peters said, but he added that there was community value in the land. “I’m not minimizing what the church did. It was their property. They’ve done their part. But there have been a lot of hours and dollars spent to create the park.”

Given resident contributions, the neighborhood has an equity interest in the park property, city leaders said, even if it’s not a legally binding claim.

“It seems to me the church’s goal should be building communities and a better world. That doesn’t mean taking money from this community, building a church, then when they dispose of it, taking those dollars and using them in another place,” said City Council member Christine Mikell. “That’s what I find so frustrating about this. The almighty dollar seems to be what’s first and foremost in their mind.”

Peterson sent church leaders a letter on March 16 explaining the community value of the park and offering ideas for conserving it. He suggested donating the property to the city or granting the city the right of first refusal, which would allow the city more time to work through its protocols for purchasing the land.

“As a municipality, we can’t just write a check tomorrow,” Peterson told The Tribune. “It’s a long process.”

The letter also proposed the church allow Cottonwood Heights to enter into a long-term lease of the park, which it would maintain, similar to an agreement reached with the Canyons School District to create a park at the Mountain View Elementary site in 2011.

The mayor said he has not received a response to that offer.

A church spokesperson said in a written statement to The Tribune that the property was listed for sale “after careful consideration.”

“We have confidence,” the spokesperson wrote, “that city officials and a future owner of the property will follow the city’s established policies as they determine the best use of the property.”

Peterson said “five or six” developers have contacted the city to inquire about the property to date.

“They want to maximize the property to put in as much density as the zoning allows,” the mayor said. “Of course, to the community that means no open space.”

Mikell, the council member, said beyond the petition’s show of community support, there’s little the city can do to intervene in the proposed transaction. Still, she urged the church to acknowledge the community’s sense of investment in the park.

“People feel strongly about their property rights, but the church is a nonprofit at its core,” Mikell said. “I think I look at this differently because of that. ... I struggle every time I drive by that sign that says ‘land for sale.’”