Erda moves closer to cityhood as judge orders Tooele County surveyor to OK incorporation map

Small farming community may officially ring in the new year by becoming Utah’s newest city.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erda farmland seen on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

Erda’s future status of becoming a city has sat in limbo since Christmas, but a state judge just handed the town a win.

At an emergency hearing Wednesday, 3rd District Judge Dianna Gibson ordered Tooele County to finish reviewing a plat map that is a critical last step to Erda’s incorporation. And County Recorder-Surveyor Jerry Houghton doesn’t have a lot of time to approve the document. Gibson gave him until 10 a.m. Thursday to have the map signed and ready to meet a deadline with the lieutenant governor’s office.

The newly elected Erda City Council submitted a final plat to the county surveyor earlier this month, but Houghton rejected the submission on Christmas Eve. He cited a new Utah law that took effect in March, barring split parcels in new incorporation maps. But Erda launched its incorporation process in 2018, and voters approved its boundaries in 2020. A handful of City Council members and Erda residents filed a quick petition for relief Monday, prompting Gibson to hold Wednesday’s hearing.

Jess Bird, the Erda City Council chair and a plaintiff in the suit, said Gibson was “correct” to rule in their favor.

“I do feel for Jerry,” Bird said. “I know he is an honest man and that this is all just a big misunderstanding brought about by ambiguities in the law. But I saw no other way to get the map approved in time other than to bring it before a judge. ... We’ll see what happens in the morning.”

The judge listened to hours of testimony from Bird, planning and mapping experts, representatives from the lieutenant governor’s office as well as attorney John Brems, who helped facilitate incorporations of Millcreek, Herriman and Taylorsville in Salt Lake County and has since been hired by the Erda City Council.

In addition to arguing that the 2021 statute involving split parcels does not apply to Erda’s incorporation, the plaintiffs’ attorney Janet Conway said Houghton had charged an unreasonable $116,250 fee to review the city’s final plat.

Attorneys for the county argued that the split-parcel rule did indeed apply, because Erda submitted its plat map after it became law. Erda’s incorporation also didn’t face “irreparable harm,” the county argued, if the city’s sponsors did not meet the lieutenant governor’s Thursday deadline to submit all its documents.

Conway, however, asserted that delays would indeed harm the wannabe city. An existing lawsuit filed by representatives of a proposed development called Skywalk, who want to annex into Grantsville instead of becoming part of Erda, questions the legality of Erda’s incorporation process. A missed deadline would add fuel to that claim, Conway argued.

Regarding the hefty charge for reviewing the map, Houghton explained it was based on fees set by the county. He added that his office typically doesn’t perform work until such bills are paid and only the County Council could waive the expense.

Gibson, however, ruled the new split-parcel law “does not apply to Mr. Houghton’s review of the final plat map for purposes of Erda’s incorporation.”

The judge told the surveyor that if he finds any other issues with Erda’s plat map, he must “immediately” work with Bird to get those matters resolved before the 10 a.m. deadline.

“You shall approve the final plat, and you shall affix your signature” if the map meets all statutory requirements, Gibson said. “... If there are any hiccups, my request is that you request a hearing from the court.”

The judge did not weigh in on whether Houghton’s fee for the plat map review was reasonable. But, Gibson said, “nothing” in state law allows the surveyor “to withhold his approval ... based on a failure to pay any fee.”

Houghton declined to speak to The Salt Lake Tribune for this story and referred the newspaper to the County Attorney’s Office, which also declined to comment.

“Despite [the county’s] statements on the record that they want to see Erda incorporate, their actions speak otherwise, and I believe the judge saw that,” said Conway, the attorney for the plaintiffs. “It was a pretty black-and-white case and not difficult for the judge to reach her decision.”

Conway added that Erda will likely receive its certificate of incorporation Monday, but the newly minted city isn’t in the clear yet. It still faces the legal challenge from Skywalk’s developers.