Why a Utah developer says land he gave to the LDS Church should remain a park

He says the faith’s representatives agreed to keep the Cottonwood Heights property as green space; church is in talks with city officials.

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Peterson, left, resident Jim Peters, center, and developer Victor Merrill discuss the massive volunteer effort it took in the 1970s to build a park on a property owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church now wants to sell the property, which is located at 3625 Doverhill Drive, but city residents and those involved in creating the park want it preserved.

Cottonwood Heights • As a community fights to keep a park from being turned into another subdivision, the neighborhood’s original developer says he donated a portion of the land with the understanding that it always would remain green space.

Victor Merrill gifted about a third of an acre from his Brighton Point development to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints back in 1973. The church absorbed it into a six-acre property on Doverhill Drive, turning half of it into a meetinghouse with a parking lot. The remaining three acres, which included the donation, were turned into a park, complete with a baseball diamond and picnic pavilion, all made possible through a lot of volunteered materials and effort from the community.

The chapel caught fire in 2019. Now the church wants to sell the entire property to the highest bidder.

Merrill said when he saw a “for sale” sign planted in the park several weeks ago, he was taken aback.

“Nobody has contacted me at all, and they know darn well I have an interest in this,” he said. “They’d like to just sweep it under the rug, but if they’re not careful, they’re going to end up being sued.”

Asked for a comment, a church spokesperson said the sale process for the property has not yet been finalized. “I will be happy to let you know when a decision has been made,” the spokesperson wrote Friday in an email.

‘They had to move dirt’

Merrill provided a copy of the original deed from his donation. He described it as a triangular parcel that ran along the north property line. Its boundaries would have included a portion of the current baseball diamond and concrete bleachers. He says without his donation, there would be no park.

“They [church representatives] said if we can get your property and do all the excavating that’s required, we’ll end up with a ballpark here,” Merrill recalled. “But if we can’t get your significant piece, it’s not going to become a ballpark.”

He also recalled the community work that went into building the park, including an effort to move soil and grade the site, all with donated labor from trucking and construction companies.

“They had to move dirt for a solid summer, day in and day out,” Merrill said, “to make this work.”

That volunteer labor was confirmed by Jim Peters, who served as co-chair of the park committee when the neighborhood banded together to build it in 1976.

“It was a massive amount of dirt that had to be moved,” Peters said.

Residents also surveyed the property, he added, built the ballpark’s bleachers and donated the backstop, all at no cost, to create a space that could be accessed and enjoyed by all.

“This is church property; there’s no question about that,” Peters said. “The issue is the posture of the church has been that people are welcome, and this park has been used by the community.”

Peters and several neighbors want the church to give Cottonwood Heights an opportunity to buy the property at a fair market rate and preserve it as public space in perpetuity. An online petition calling for the park’s preservation has more than 1,000 signatures.

“The more we’re looking into this, the more we’re finding how much the community’s invested,” said Mayor Mike Peterson, who values the donated time and materials used to build the park at around $1 million in today’s dollars.

But when city officials have reached out about the preserving park, Peterson said, they’re told the church is a worldwide organization that must get “the highest and best value” from the property.

“My answer to that is, no, the church is a humble, 14-year-old boy going into the sacred grove,” said Merrill, referring to Joseph Smith and the church founder’s “First Vision.” “It’s not this massive thing that needs lots and lots of money.”

‘We’re part of that world’

In late 2019, it was reported that the church had $100 billion in a “rainy day fund” to help the global religion of 16.5 million members weather economic downturns and pay for its operations around the world. Its largest investment account grew by another $2.4 billion in early 2021.

“My answer is we’re part of that world” the church serves, Peterson said. “This is part of that world,” he continued, pointing to the park.

The mayor added that the property is one of the only large open spaces available to the community from Wasatch Boulevard to 2700 East.

“I’m passionate about green space,” Peterson said. “And if you lose it, it’s gone. It’s not going to come back.”

City governments can’t make real estate purchases as quickly as a deep-pocketed developer — it takes public hearings and approval from elected officials. Peterson sent the church a letter in March outlining the community’s interest in the park.

He also suggested the church sell off the meetinghouse chunk of the property to a developer, then either donate the park portion to the city or grant it the right of first refusal.

“With today’s market, they’re going to get more for that [chapel] part than they ever thought they’d get for the whole [property],” Peterson said.

“They’ll make several million dollars,” Merrill agreed. “Don’t just be a hog and take [the park], too.”

The church responded to the mayor’s March letter and agreed to have talks after The Salt Lake Tribune published a story about efforts to save the park, Peterson said. The City Council is working on a proposal, which it will submit next week.

“We’re going to do everything we can,” the mayor said. “But a small municipality does not have huge resources.”

The Salt Lake County assessor currently values the park property at nearly $1.8 million.

Although Merrill never got a commitment in writing to preserve his donated land as a park, he said case law would uphold his verbal agreement with the church’s real estate arm.

“I’m not chomping at the bit to sue the church,” Merrill said, “but I want to be assured they recognize that this was a commitment.”