SALT LAKE CITY — The threat of state intervention has loomed over a land dispute between Salt Lake City and Millcreek, but now Millcreek leaders expect to pull the bill.
After a meeting between city officials and a Utah lawmaker last week, new talks are happening to resolve the matter outside of the Utah Legislature. In a vote expected Monday, Millcreek leaders plan to officially ask that a bill be withdrawn that would force Salt Lake City's hand if Millcreek doesn't get its way.
Still, Salt Lake City leaders are "cautiously optimistic," remaining wary until state legislation is officially off the table.
The fight? Over an annexation that happened four decades ago, when Salt Lake City swallowed about 50 acres of what was at the time unincorporated Salt Lake County — a commercial area called the Brickyard near 1100 East and 3300 South.
Now, officials leading the brand-new city of Millcreek want the area back, saying it's always been a part of their community's fabric.
As they attempt to plan their new town center, Millcreek leaders say the awkward island of Salt Lake City jutting into the heart of their city is causing headaches.
Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said the area was annexed 40 years ago "with a water gun to the developer's head" because Salt Lake officials said they wouldn't provide the increased water needed for the project unless the area annexed into the city.
"In a lot of ways, we're undoing a wrong that was done 40 years ago," Silvestrini said.
Yet Salt Lake City leaders balk, reluctant to allow their neighbors to absorb an area that has been on city books for more than 40 years and provides about $3 million of taxpayer revenue into Utah's capital city budget. They also worry it could amount to more state meddling and a takeover of Salt Lake land — and the precedent it would set for future potential land grabs.
They also fear Millcreek officials will attempt to grab even more city land than the Brickyard, though Millcreek leaders say they have no desire. In fact, Millcreek leaders say they'd be happy with even just a segment of the area, a nearly 6-acre peninsula jutting on the east edge of the Brickyard that they say is the largest impediment to their town center planning.
After months of what officials describe as slow-going negotiations, Millcreek leaders turned to the Utah Legislature for backup.
"We'd like to work something out," Silvestrini said this past week, minutes before he was scheduled to meet with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, and Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke.
Silvestrini said Millcreek leaders originally resorted to requesting legislation because it appeared Salt Lake City leaders were "just not taking it seriously."
A few days prior, a bill was filed that would target situations like the Brickyard, relating specifically to a transfer of land defined as a "substantially isolated peninsula," or an area that is "surrounded on more than 95 percent" of its border by another municipality. It would allow property owners to request a transfer into Millcreek, leaving Salt Lake City no recourse to protest.
Luke said city leaders have been open to negotiations since Millcreek officials approached them in May, but when the threat of state intervention became real, it complicated things.
"We're more than willing to negotiate with them," Luke said. "However, we can't negotiate as long a there's legislation being held over us …Salt Lake City has already said we're willing to talk. We're just not willing to talk under duress."
In an attempt to work through the stalemate, Millcreek and Salt Lake City leaders met together with Potter, HB262's sponsor, on Wednesday.
Luke and Silvestrini both walked away from the meeting sounding optimistic, hinting the dispute may be resolved without state help, but the bill hadn't been officially withdrawn yet.
"The point I made multiple times is Salt Lake City can't negotiate specifics as long as there's legislation held over us," Luke said. "We're ready to talk and work through the negotiations and the specifics, but we have to wait until the legislation is officially off the table."
Saturday, Silvestrini told the Desert News he had been discussing the matter with other city leaders individually, and now he's confident a vote during Monday's council meeting will officially pull the legislation.
"We would rather work it out in a cordial and collaborative way," Silvestrini said. "So we're going to give this a shot."
He added: "We are pleased that members of the Salt Lake City Council have committed to engage with us in good faith to discuss and attempt to resolve our differences."
Luke said Saturday he and other Salt Lake City leaders continue to watch the issue "closely," but he's "optimistic we'll be able to move forward once the bill is lifted off the table."
"The only way that I believe Millcreek and Salt Lake City can effectively talk is if there's good faith between both sides," he said. "Our position all along has been that once the legislation is off the table, we would be able to begin our discussion with Millcreek and talk about the specifics, but we couldn't do that as long as legislation is out there."
Potter said he knew Salt Lake City leaders were "concerned when the legislation hit" so he called Wednesday's meeting between city leaders to see if a compromise could be reached.
"It's always better for two neighboring cities to get along and negotiate and come up with compromise," Potter said. "So I told them that's what I'd like to see them do. … When two cities are at each other's throats, that's never a good resolution to good planning for a community."
Potter called the meeting a "very good discussion."
"I think both sides realized the need for discussion between the cities is a good thing, and I think they're going to go back to their respective councils to talk about it," he said.
Earlier, Luke said he hopes the dispute with Millcreek doesn't amount to another state takeover of Salt Lake City land — similar to what happened last year when the Legislature slammed through a bill to create the Utah Inland Port Authority, which now controls over 16,000 acres of the city's undeveloped west side.
Luke said he worried if the state gives Millcreek the power to chip away at Salt Lake City borders, it would open up the city to a new vulnerability.
He said city officials have been warned that if "the Legislature opens this door and creates a precedent where they can start adjusting municipal boundaries at will" Salt Lake City's eligibility for bonds could be put in "jeopardy" because "bond counsels will not be interested in signing to a long-term bill if they know the boundaries can change."
"It opens up so many different issues," Luke said. "Our position is a boundary is a boundary. … We can't do something that's going to go against the interest of our residents."
But Silvestrini said Millcreek residents have always considered the area to be a part of their community, and even though Salt Lake City services the area, Millcreek is better equipped to provide police and fire services.
"There's a fire station six blocks from the area," he said. "Our police are already in this area all the time — so we can respond first."
Luke noted Salt Lake City has been on guard, worried that Millcreek might attempt to take more than just the Brickyard area. He said there are Millcreek city documents that indicate intentions for a more "aggressive" grab, annexation petitions that would move Millcreek's northern boundary to 2700 South, which could even cut Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler out of the city and threaten her seat on the City Council.
But Silvestrini said, "that's not correct."
"What they're referring to is something that hasn't even ever been adopted by Millcreek," he said, noting it's an "annexation policy" that was proposed as part of Millcreek's general plan.
"That issue is a red herring and it's unfortunate it got introduced here," Silvestrini said. He added all of Millcreek is in Salt Lake City's annexation policy, so "if you want to get into that, then Amy Fowler wants to take my house."
Overall, Silvestrini said the conflict is not about a "takeover."
"It's not a grab by Millcreek," he said. "It's to give self-determination."