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SANDY PROPERTY OWNER WILL FIGHT ‘BLIGHT’ LABEL

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Theron C. Olsen has lived in his home in Sandy for the past 42 years, and he didn't know his property was blighted. But city officials have told him it is.

As a result of the city's decision, Olsen plans to move off his six acres of land at 9966 S. State St. because he says he is tired of defending his rights as a property owner and fighting the city's plan to develop a business park.But even though he's planning to leave, Olsen doesn't want his property - a place where his wife was born and raised and where the Olsens have reared their five children - designated as "blighted."

Sandy City has earmarked property north of the South Towne Mall along I-15, including Olsen's, as a redevelopment area where they eventually hope to develop a business park - plans which have already attracted Novell, a nationally known computer company.

City officials say the park will be a boon to the city economically, but a Salt Lake County official joins Olsen in raising doubts about the project. In a joint public hearing June 26, City Council members and the Sandy Redevelopment Agency approved the irregularly shaped area of land as the "Civic Center North Development Neighborhood Area."

Before adopting this redevelopment area, the RDA and City Council designated nine parcels of land as "blighted" after reviewing an analysis by Richard Chong and Associates, a Salt Lake architectural/planning firm.

Olsen's concern with the designation is that, if he doesn't cooperate the city can use eminent-domain power, condemn his property and give a market-value price for the land - a price lower than what Olsen might get if he had the right to negotiate freely.

"I don't want them to control my property. It's not right," he said adamantly. And he plans to take the city to court to get the blight designation changed.

His fear, however, may not be justified because city officials have verbally committed not to condemn his land.

"We have told him we would not condemn his land for the project," said Dick Bradford, Sandy RDA director. "We are not attempting to take any of his land. The only land we're actually taking is in the road right-of-way."

"Blight doesn't mean the land is worthless. It means the land is perhaps dormant and has potential to be improved and developed to a higher use. We want to have it developed in such a way that it will be a very high-caliber research-type development," said Bryant Anderson, Sandy City Council chairman.

Sandy city officials believe conditions on Olsen's property fit the state's definition of "blight."

Some factors included in the official definition of blight include: neglected buildings, cluttered lots, poor drainage ditches, overcrowding, inadequate size or irregularly shaped land for development, deterioration resulting from faulty planning, poor roadway surfaces and other conditions which could develop into health and social problems.

"There's a whole list of terms to describe blight," Anderson said. "In these cases, there are definitely some blighted buildings in that area and also there are some roads and streets that are not up to standard."

When he looks at his home, Olsen, a retired chiropractor, does not see blighted land but property that once fed sheep and cattle and still produces fresh vegetables. Decked out in overalls, he looks into the sunshine at his grassy field, straight rows of corn, a partially torn-down shed, a rusty, abandoned green car and stacks of firewood.

And he is frustrated - even when the city is willing to place in the infrastructure at no cost to Olsen.

Typically, property owners often carry the financial burden of such improvements. In return for making the improvements free in Olsen's case, the city wants the first rights to purchase a corner portion of his property if he decides to sell. Olsen has still not agreed because of his distaste for the term "blight."

A representative of the Salt Lake County Commission also questioned the definition of "blight" and urged the city to use caution in creating a redevelopment agency.

Nelson G. Williams, director of the Division of Management and Budget for Salt Lake County, said developers and the RDA, not taxpayers, benefit from RDA activities.

"We think that there is a real danger in the perception of use in the public mind," Williams said.

He backed up his statement with a 1989 report from the Special Projects Task Force to the county commissioners regarding the impact of redevelopment agencies on governmental revenues in the county.

The study shows "tax rates will likely be higher" in areas where redevelopment agencies operate and states that RDAs do not necessarily create new economic development, but shift developments that are already in the area.

But council members said development would not occur in Sandy without the RDA.

"We disagree with your entire premise," Anderson said. "We know for a fact that the development that we have on South Towne (Mall), the Auto Mall and every development that we have in our redevelopment area would have never occured without the redevelopment agency as a vehicle. I think that this kind of presentation does a great disservice."

If Olsen cannot reach an agreement with the city, he has several options. But for Olsen, who put his property on the market in mid-May, there is only one option. He has decided to take the city to court. The battle would be one of property rights and pride, not a matter of relocating. Exercising his right as landowner is important, he says.

Whatever the outcome, Olsen plans to find somewhere else to live, leaving more than just farmland, a barn and a thriving vegetable garden. He and his wife will leave memories.

"My wife was born here. Her parents farmed the land," said Olsen, who purchased the lot from his in-laws.

Aware of these memories and emotional ties, city officials say they are trying to be sensitive to Olsen's needs and don't intend to force him and his wife from the land where she was born and raised.

"We as a city have really bent over backward to accommodate Doc," Anderson said."We've realigned the street so it wouldn't take any more property. We gave him the choice to either be in the redevelopment area or stay out. If Doc Olsen feels strongly that he wouldn't be in the development, the RDA would consider leaving him out."

Nevertheless, the land has been designated as blighted and officials want to start installing infrastructure, which they say will benefit the landowner - benefits that Olsen may be failing to see.