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Court hears Sandy zoning dispute

A citizen activist group has taken its war over words with Sandy city officials to the Utah Supreme Court — the second time the high court has been asked to rule over a contentious zoning dispute.

During a hearing Wednesday at the request of Save Our Communities, justices found the language city attorney Walter Miller used was factually accurate, but they did express concern that voters may not know what the result of passing the new zoning ordinance would be.

Save Our Communities members claim the language the city is proposing for next November's ballot initiative is so bogged down with legal terminology and technical descriptions that the average voter would not understand it.

SOC attorney Robert Hughes told justices even members of his organization had no idea whether to vote yes or no for an ordinance that proposes a zoning change to 107 acres on a former gravel pit at 9400 South and 1000 East. SOC has fought Sandy and developer Boyer Co. over commercial development plans that would allow the construction of a Wal-Mart and Lowe's Home Improvement.

Just two months ago the high court ruled that Sandy city officials had to put their zoning decision up for a public vote.

On Wednesday, Hughes argued the proposed ballot entry offers no insight into the city's plans for "big-box" retail development.

Miller responded by saying it is up to citizens to educate themselves on the some 150 different land uses the proposed ordinance allows and called the use of the term "big box" a pejorative term that casts potential development in a bad light.

Chief Justice Christine Durham said one critique she had of the city's proposed ballot entry is that it does little to explain the new ordinance's "underlying purpose."

"Really what matters is the change and the reason for the amendment," said Justice Jill Parrish.

Justices noted that much of the language goes to describing terms common to both the old and new ordinance.

"This is not gobbledygook," Miller told the court.

Justice Michael Wilkins asked if it wasn't necessary to describe the reason for the city wanting to change zoning, rather than simply to describe the changes.

Hughes pointed out that there are descriptions of the project in "plain language" found in several city memos that the City Council has refused to consider for the ballot.

Miller accused unnamed individuals of taking the ballot language to the Utah Supreme Court as a pay to go around the city attorney and further their "political goals."

Only one resident opposed to the development has decided to run for city office. Gary T. Forbush is challenging incumbent Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan.

The justices took the arguments under advisement, but noted that neither side offered them any helpful suggestions. The court will release a written ruling in the coming weeks. The Sandy Ccity recorder has said the city needs definite language by Oct. 1 to print and distribute ballots in advance of the Nov. 8 election.