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City may oppose lease at heritage park

Development of open space area is questioned

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Deseret Morning News graphic

Salt Lake City officials plan to speak out in the debate over a controversial plan to develop open space at This Is the Place Heritage Park.

The City Council on Tuesday was mostly receptive to the idea that it issue a joint resolution with Mayor Rocky Anderson's office opposing a lease of 12 acres of east-bench land.

The park's board of trustees "is trying to follow through on the commitment it has made to the state" by proposing the lease, Councilman Eric Jergensen said. "I just don't agree with this solution."

The park's leaders want to lease 12 acres of the living-history park to the University of Utah's research park for 50 years at $400,000 annually. The lease would allow Associated Regional and University Pathologists to build an administrative building and parking lot on an empty field, some 900 feet away from the historic Brigham Young farmhouse.

The park's board approved the lease in March. The Division of State Parks and Recreation, however, has final say on the lease. Its board of directors plans to vote after an April 19 public hearing scheduled from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The lease was the idea of developer Ellis Ivory, the new chairman of the park's board, who hopes to generate revenue for the state-owned, privately-run park that has been plagued by financial turmoil left over from former park leadership. Ivory is also chairman of the Deseret Morning News board of directors.

The park received a one-time grant of $2 million from the state Legislature last February to keep it afloat after mounting debt nearly forced the park to close its doors.

But Anderson and some City Council members, as well as residents who live near the park, have opposed the lease. The City Council plans to vote on the resolution opposing the lease at its April 17 meeting. Council members who spoke during Tuesday's discussion said they would likely support a resolution. The council has three different versions to consider.

The first version, proposed by Anderson, is critical of the lease because it would "violate the trust of many private and public donors," impact views and "result in permanent and irreparable harm to the function of the park."

A second version is similar to Anderson's but includes more explanatory language relating to how the lease purportedly is at odds with city policy. It retains Anderson's calls for the state board to reject the lease but also encourages the public to show its support by visiting the park more often.

The third version, proposed by Jergensen, focuses on the city's interest in preserving open space and is less critical of other elements of the plan. It also urges the state board to find other sources of revenue that would not require the sale or lease of park land.

Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said she hesitated to support a resolution, because the council risked looking like it was meddling. Still, she said, she would support Jergensen's suggestion.

Councilman Dave Buhler, who is running for mayor, recused himself from the council's discussion because he is a member of the park's board. He was one of three board members who voted against the lease.

After Tuesday's meeting, he said the board is in a "tough spot" because it needs money. "I did not feel that leasing publicly owned open space is the right place to find it."

He said the state should provide more funding. When he was in the Senate in the late 1990s, the park was getting $800,000 yearly from the state, he said. The park now receives $700,000 in state funds.

E-mail: dsmeath@desnews.com; astowell@desnews.com