After years of fits and starts over development of the old Cottonwood Mall site, the Holladay City Council voted last week to reject a petition to put the latest development plan to a vote, and then went ahead and scheduled the vote anyway.

The council maintains it has the authority to approve the development without putting it on the ballot, but it admits that a judge hearing a possible lawsuit on the matter may think differently.

The decade-long failure to develop the site has become legendary. There could hardly be a more valuable 57 acres in Salt Lake County, but it’s been growing weeds since George W. Bush was president. First it was the recession that held it up, and now it’s NIMBY neighbors.

The latest plan would indeed be a big change, with offices, retail and nearly 1,000 apartments and homes. It is certain to produce more traffic than an open field does, although not necessarily more than the destination shopping mall that occupied the land for decades.

In rejecting the petition, the council let stand its own decision to allow the development, arguing that developers had followed city processes, including modifying their plans to address neighbors’ concerns.

But with opponents likely to file a lawsuit to try and force an election anyway, the council hedged its bet by scheduling an election that would happen only in the event that a judge calls for it.

That’s right. The council scheduled a tentative election just in case a yet to be filed lawsuit is successful. If this is how it’s going to go, how are we ever going to add another million people to the valley?

Holladay’s saga may be one of the most visible, but similar fights are hurting efforts to manage Utah’s inevitable population growth. The problem is acute enough that even the Utah League of Cities and Towns is trying to educate its mayors and city council members on how to responsibly add people without their current constituents voting them out.

To be sure, residents deserve predictable and consistent rules about future development. They have every interest in protecting both their quality of life and their property values.

But they aren’t facing a choice between growth and no growth. It's a choice between good growth and bad growth.

Bad growth means longer commute times, more air pollution and higher taxes. Those problems would do more to undermine Utahns’ well being — emotionally and financially — than any nearby development.

And by then it will be too late to start over.