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Provo Tree Streets are a battle zone

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PROVO — Up the hill from Brigham Young University is a leafy neighborhood known as the Tree Streets.

There's a street named for birch trees and another for firs, and one is called Old Willow Lane. It sounds quite serene, but a battle is raging beneath all this shade.

An orthodontist from St. George has filed a lawsuit against Provo city, challenging an ordinance that requires property owners who want to rent out a basement or other accessory apartments in the neighborhood to live in the home.

Investors such as Mervyn Cox, who filed the lawsuit, and other property owners argue the ordinance has stripped them of their property rights and robbed them of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cox says he spent at least half a million dollars renovating a large brick home at 1310 N. 900 East, hoping to rent to college students. The ordinance has made it difficult for him to do so legally.

Cox wants the city to drop its owner-occupancy requirement for his property and allow him to rent to as many tenants as the law would permit.

Rumors that the city is close to settling with Cox have prompted a group of Tree Streets residents to file a lawsuit of their own. This lawsuit claims the city would violate its own laws if it settles with the Cox family.

"In order to avoid the cost of a lawsuit, the city has decided to settle. We're simply insisting the city follow its own laws," said Ray Christensen, a BYU political science professor who helped file the residents' lawsuit. "It's bad public policy to make a decision based on whether or not you have to fight a lawsuit. Then you cave in to the people who pressure you most."

Assistant City Attorney David Dixon says the city is not caving to pressure. Some sources say the city does not want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting a lawsuit it may lose.

If Cox wins his lawsuit, the owner-occupancy ordinance could be overturned for the entire neighborhood.

"I disagree vehemently that if you sue Provo City we'll settle. Even if the settlement is approved, we do not believe it would violate any state or local law," Dixon said.

"This would not set a precedent because the Coxes have a unique situation. To our knowledge, there are no other homeowners who have spent six figures to improve their property."

Christensen and others worry if the city settles with Cox, the investor will soon try to build an apartment complex on his property.

Cox and his attorney both declined to comment.

Christensen says the owner-occupancy ordinance, passed two and a half years ago, has revitalized the Tree Streets.

According to data he gathered, the number of elementary school-age children in the Wasatch neighborhood has increased by 26 percent, proving the ordinance has been effective in retaining and attracting families to the area.

"This is a neighborhood a lot of people want to live in; we're just trying to protect it," said David Armond, a librarian at BYU who spent six years looking for a home in the neighborhood. "It's a great place to live."

E-MAIL: jhyde@desnews.com