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When Trish Topham was growing up, residents commonly referred to her neighborhood as "the Cottonwoods."

The unofficial name "epitomized the semirural feel of the area," she said, alluding to its tree-lined streams, pastures and large, wooded homesteads.There was "no citynesss" about it, Topham recalled. "That's what we are hoping to preserve."

To that end, she joined a group of her neighbors in launching an incorporation drive last year, believing, ironically, that the only way to recapture the area's "un-city-ness" is to turn it into a city: The Cottonwoods.

"We wanted to avoid the word city," she explained. "We don't want to be a city; we just want to be incorporated."

The effort to create a new city in fact if not in name was born of increasing dissatisfaction with county rule, primarily in regard to land development, according to Topham.

Planning issues may have provided the fuel, but taxes lit the match.

Caught on the crest of skyrocketing real estate values at the tail end of a five-year reappraisal cycle, Holladay-Cottonwood properties were hit last year with huge valuation and tax hikes. Adding insult to injury, the scheduled start of a new five-year cycle that would have offered taxpayers some relief this year was postponed pending reforms.

"Everywhere we went, people were saying it was too bad we didn't pass incorporation when it came up for a vote 10 years ago. Well, we thought about it and decided, it's better late than never," Topham said.

Within just a few weeks, organizers had the 1,000 signatures needed to initiate the incorporation process. Topham said the group could have easily gathered more signatures on the petition but quit after exceeding the requirement by more than 200.

That forced the County Commission to pay for a feasibility study, which was completed last month. Conducted by the Fry Management Group, the study concluded the proposed city is economically viable "under a variety of scenarios," including contracting with the county for its municipal services or providing the services itself.

In fact, the consultants found that the city could end up with an annual surplus exceeding $1 million. The extra money could be used to increase services or reduce taxes, the study said. Given the mood of the community, tax reduction is likely to have the edge, Topham said.

However, the loss of the tax base, especially the tax-rich Cottonwood Mall, could result in a property tax hike of $13.60 in the rest of the unincorporated county in 1997. Combined with the potential simultaneous incorporation of the neighboring Union community, the county's municipal services operations could be significantly affected, said Commissioner Randy Horiuchi.

Nevertheless, he and fellow commissioners Jim Bradley and Brent Overson have adopted a "hands-off" policy on the incorporation efforts, saying they will abide by the wishes of voters. Organizers remain wary of Horiuchi, however, noting that as a private lobbyist, he worked for the opposition in the 1985 Holladay incorporation drive.

The commissioners will preside over two public hearings on The Cottonwoods incorporation: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, at the Government Center, 2001 S. State, and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, at Olympus Junior High, 2217 E. 4800 South.

An incorporation election could be held anytime between Oct. 26 and Jan. 26. If voters approve, city officers will be elected on Nov. 7, 1995, and the new city will begin operating on July 1, 1996.

Bordered roughly by Murray-Holladay Road and Casto Lane on the north, Highland Drive on the west, and the I-215 belt route on the east and south, The Cottonwoods would encompass a mostly residential area with a population of 6,780.

Topham said the proposed borders were based on voting district boundaries and major thoroughfares that "sort of surround the area like rivers." She rejects assertions that the borders were tailored to "cherry-pick" the area's richest properties.

"The Cottonwood Mall fits naturally within our borders, and we included Creekside (Plaza) because the two are essentially a single shopping entity," Topham said in a newsletter to residents.

She added that if organizers had been "cherry-picking," they would have also taken the Albertsons complex, Holladay Center and all of the Holladay business district.

Despite its reputation as an upscale neighborhood, The Cottonwoods would be a diverse city, Topham said. "We have a wide variety of incomes in this neighborhood. We have apartments and middle-income housing - we don't look at ourselves as a rich, east-side neighborhood."

Led by John Daniel Holladay, Mormon pioneers settled the area in the 1850s - calling it Big Cottonwood - and built a fort near what is now Holladay Boulevard and 4800 South. One of the area's surviving historic landmarks, Knudsen's Corners, was named for the flour mill Rasmus Knudsen built along Big Cottonwood Creek in 1871.

In 1882, pioneers built the Granite Paper Mill, which produced paper for the Deseret News and locally published books. The mill was destroyed by fire in 1893 and survives in name as the Old Mill.

Topham noted that the heaviest opposition in the 1985 incorporation attempt came from Old Mill property owners who were concerned about the impact. With that area excluded from the latest incorporation proposal, no significant opposition has emerged, she said.

Unlike Union, which faces almost certain and imminent annexation by neighboring cities, The Cottonwoods area would likely remain in the unincorporated area if incorporation fails. But for how long? Topham asks.

"Salt Lake City and Murray and others have been casting longing eyes at the Cottonwood Mall for years. I think wall-to-wall cities are inevitable, and people here definitely don't want to be part of Salt Lake City," Topham said.

She argues that it makes more sense for the remaining unincorporated communities to form smaller cities for local control of planning and development issues and then band together for countywide services, including police and fire.

Representative government is the underlying motive for incorporation, according to drive organizer A. Tom Nelson. In a news-letter article, he observed that under county government, an unincorporated resident has a very small voice: one of 281,070 votes. In The Cottonwoods, there would be 1,300 voters in each of five council districts.

"Be assured that no city council member could afford not to listen when any of those 1,300 residents speak," Nelson said. "We will, indeed, have restored representative government to our area."