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Church accuses Draper of religious bias

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DRAPER — Representatives of a nondenominational Protestant church have accused city leaders of religious bias for trying to condemn church land and build a fire station there.

But Draper's mayor, the only elected official who will comment on the issue, says religion has nothing to do with it.

The dispute centers on almost an acre owned by the Evangelical Free Church. Draper wants the property for a much-needed fire station in the South Mountain area. EFC, which operates the Intermountain Christian School, wants to build a church and school on the 12-acre parcel just south of Traverse Ridge Road at the intersection of Brew Road and Manilla Drive.

Frank Mylar, lawyer for the church, says the condemnation would prevent the church from having any legal access to its remaining property. The church may consider filing a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging religious discrimination if the condemnation goes forward, Mylar said.

"We're really concerned (Draper officials) are being discriminatory to us," Mylar said. "I'm getting the feeling that it's because they don't want us to build a church."

While Mylar does not dispute that the city needs a new fire station, he said that Draper's real motivation was religion. The majority of city leaders are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The City Council has postponed a decision about the condemnation until after its July 17 meeting when it has scheduled time for public comments about the proposal.

Draper Mayor Richard Alsop said that religion has never been considered during discussions about the property. What did matter was an engineering study that identified the EFC property as the best location for a fire station and the fact that the city already owns a neighboring acre.

"This piece is preferable," Alsop said. "It's not unusual to condemn property if there's a public need. It has nothing to do with who the owner of property is."

Initial contact with EFC leaders seemed to indicate that the condemnation would be friendly, City Manager Jim Smith said. It was only in recent months that negotiations soured, he said, and the charges of religious bias against the city administration — which puzzled him, since he is not even LDS — began to surface.

Delaying the property acquisition would put the quickly expanding South Mountain residential area in danger because of its distance from emergency services, Smith said. Plans have already been drawn for a station on the EFC property, so using another piece of property would cause a significant delay.

But the city already owns a viable 2.5-acre parcel less than a half-mile away from the EFC property, said Bob Christiansen, vice president for U.S. General Inc., the company that donated both the 12 acres to EFC and a 2.5-acre site for Draper's fire station.

The city has avoided the 2.5-acre site because the engineering report said it was too steep and too close to residential areas. Christiansen said it actually has a lower grade than the EFC property, and it has only a few homes across the street.

Christiansen said he has watched EFC struggle with Draper for three years, including a request that five acres be deeded to the city for open space. He said he would support any action EFC takes against the city because he agrees that the condemnation is being done primarily because the city does not want any non-Mormon churches.

"I honestly believe if that were an LDS church on the property, (Draper) would be offering land somewhere else," he said. "They would have some horse trading or would pay fair market value. They would never condemn property owned by the LDS Church."

If the condemnation were friendly, Christiansen said that the city would pay EFC what the land is worth and not the $120,000 that it has offered — slightly more than $3 a square foot. By comparison, U.S. General had land across the street from the EFC property appraised at almost $7.50 a square foot.


E-MAIL: jloftin@desnews.com