Possible referendum could delay or alter plan for Tooele Valley Temple, adjacent residential community
‘The development goes way beyond the high-density housing that some people are pointing to. This has got very high-end development around it with a park and trail systems and water features that are very desirable,’ said Tooele County Commissioner Tom Tripp
ERDA, Tooele County — A petition opposing the approved residential community planned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around its proposed Tooele Valley Temple could lead to long delays in the construction of a much-anticipated temple the church had hoped to build quickly.
It could also change the church’s plans for the temple, said Richard Droubay, a longtime Tooele resident authorized to speak on behalf of the church as chairman of the temple groundbreaking committee.
The temple absolutely must have the proposed walkable, sustainable community around it, he said, because it would enhance and protect the land around the temple site and makes it more efficient to bring essential utility infrastructure to what has been a crop field.
“This is a unique and special opportunity,” Tooele County Commissioner Tom Tripp said. “The development goes way beyond the high-density housing that some people are pointing to. This has got very high-end development around it with a park and trail systems and water features that are very desirable. I don’t look at this as a domino, that if we do this one development this way, that we’ll just open the floodgates for everybody else that comes in that won’t have the same kind of amenities the temple is bringing with it.”
The county updated its general plan in 2016. The update anticipated growth and increased density in the area where the temple development is planned. The general plan calls for density in those areas of up to 10 to 15 homes per acre.
The church’s plan calls for fewer than 3.0 homes per acre, according to documents filed by its tax-paying real estate investment affiliate, Suburban Land Reserve Inc. That number represents a compromise worked out between the church’s representatives and the County Commission and staff after Suburban Land Reserve initially proposed greater density last year.
The Tooele County Commission approved plans for both the proposed temple and surrounding residential community by a 2-1 vote on June 2, but opponents of the new subdivision are gathering signatures on a petition that could trigger a countywide referendum. They want residents to vote to overturn the plan to build 446 new homes because they believe the proposed housing density is too much for a rural valley where growth has become a major issue.
The petition calls for the referendum to be held as part of the general election on Nov. 3, which is legally impossible, or for an expensive special election next year, said Tooele County Clerk Marilyn K. Gillette.
A referendum on a law or ordinance passed after April 15 cannot be held until the following year, according to Utah law. The soonest the referendum on the subdivision could be held is in a June 2021 special election, which would cost $2 per ballot. It could also be postponed until November 2021’s municipal election, Gillette said.
More than 93% of residents expressed overwhelming support in emails to the planning commission, which recommended that the County Commission rezone the land to allow the temple and development. Of the supportive emails, more than half mentioned support for both the temple and neighborhood, while the rest of the other positive messages did not mention the subdivision, according to county planner Jeff Miller.
The church originally planned to hold a groundbreaking for the temple last March, Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne said, but church representatives spent nearly a year working on a compromise to reduce the density of housing in the proposed subdivision.
The church now is poised to hold a temple groundbreaking later this month or early in September, said Colleen Johnson, who is part of a local church communications council, but that might depend on whether the petition triggers a referendum that puts the subdivision on hold.
The temple and subdivision are inseparable, said Droubray, the church’s representative.
“Since the temple and surrounding community complement and support each other in essential ways, a referendum to oppose the neighborhood development may ultimately delay or alter construction of the temple,” Droubay said. “The proposed residential community will provide essential utility infrastructure for the temple and help protect this sacred structure.”
That message has led some people who signed the petition to remove their names from it, said Gillette, the county clerk.
Monday is the deadline for gathering or removing signatures. To trigger a referendum, more than 9.5% of registered voters in four of the county’s five council districts must sign the petition.
As of the end of day on Thursday, the petition had enough signatures in two of the five council districts, according to data provided by Gillette. The other three districts needed 136, 48 and 38 more signatures.
“The referendum is a way for me to say I didn’t like how our commissioners voted,” said Monica Kennedy, a Latter-day Saint who lives near the proposed neighborhood. “I didn’t think they had the best interests of Erda in mind. This is my way to tell them I didn’t like that.”
President Russell M. Nelson announced plans for a Tooele Valley Temple in April 2019. In September 2019, he announced the proposed location northwest of the intersection at Erda Way and state Route 36, an unincorporated part of Tooele County.
Published reports said the church intended to fast-track the temple’s construction, possibly completing it by the end of 2021, because of the closure of the Salt Lake Temple for renovation until 2024.
The process slowed last winter when the original proposal for the residential community by Suburban Land Reserve Inc. landed in the middle of a land-use firestorm in Tooele County.
Opponents of density are using the referendum law to challenge other commission decisions. In fact, county residents are scheduled to vote on two land use referendums on Nov. 3, Gillette said.
Arguments over growth, development and density played a major role in Milne, a two-term commissioner, losing his bid for a position in the county’s new form of government, the Tooele County Council.
The temple and neighborhood would cover 167.3 acres in the middle of an area where, today, homes sit on 1-acre and 5-acre lots.
The County Commission’s vote rezoned the temple development’s land. It authorized Suburban Land Reserve to build an average of 2.66 units per acre around the temple on a variety of smaller lots. The lots would range in size from half an acre to less than 1/10th of an acre.
About 17% of the development would be alley lots, with about 10 homes per acre buffered by the temple and 32 acres of open space, trails and parks.
Suburban Land Reserve initially requested higher density in discussions with county staff, but Milne said he and the other two commissioners, elected during the fervor over land use, recoiled because they knew some residents would oppose it.
“This particular proposal is a compromise where the land developer played by the general plan rules,” Milne said. “They were met with some resistance, there were ongoing negotiations, and what we have today is what I believe to be the best compromise from a variety of different perspectives that includes the developer, those that are the ‘resistance’ and those that are in between. And I can tell you that this process took over a year with the church.”
Suburban Land Reserve settled with county leaders on the compromise of 2.66 units per acre. Then the proposed project went public.
The church’s First Presidency then released interior renderings of the temple on April 28. On May 5, Suburban Land Reserve released the proposal for the new residential community.
Opposition to the neighborhood development grew after the commission’s vote on June 2.
“I think people as a whole would like to see Erda stay more rural with larger lots,” said Kennedy, the Erda resident who lives near the proposed neighborhood and who has concerns about its impact on schools and roads.
She said that those seeking the referendum want to see additional compromise on the density of the development without impacting the temple.
“I’m sad that the temple is getting tied up in this,” she said. “I’m sad it’s caused a lot of divide in our community.”
Suburban Land Reserve is planning a variety of lot sizes to make living by the temple possible for more people. The development would include specific housing for people 55 and older and the smaller lots for those who can’t afford a half-acre, a full acre or 5 acres.
“It’s real simple,” said Kendall Thomas, the lone county commissioner to vote against the development. “There’s overwhelming support for the temple. I just disagreed with the high-density around the temple. I don’t know what the church’s plans are, but I hope they’ll move forward with the temple. That’s a great location for the temple.”
The other two commissioners stand by their votes for the subdivision, though they said they understand why some residents oppose it.
If the temple were delayed or not built or moved because of a referendum, Tripp said, “I think that would be a disappointment for the people in our county.”
Milne, the outgoing commissioner, is frustrated that residents repeatedly get involved after the fact — he said some landowners will have waited two years for the decisions that will be decided by referendum in November — though he said he appreciates residents’ rights under the referendum process “to redress their grievances with government.”
Milne was on the commission when it spent $100,000 and 18 months to update the general plan in 2016. The plan envisioned greater density in the corridor where the temple and neighborhood would be built.
“This proposed density sits on the low end of the greater density the general plan just four years ago said the community would tolerate,” he said. “We went through a lengthy process, we spent real taxpayer dollars to come up with this plan and (Suburban Land Reserve is) playing by those rules.”
Droubay said the church can’t develop with 1-acre lots because the temple site doesn’t have an existing water or sewer system, and constructing those utilities would be significantly more complex and expensive with 1-acre lots.
He also said the planned community would help protect the temple and improve the vacant land around it.
Meanwhile, the future of Erda and the Tooele Valley is being written in other ways, too. There is a movement underway to incorporate Erda, while others are petitioning for unincorporated county land to be annexed by cities.
For example, a petition has been filed to annex 1,100 acres of unincorporated Erda into Tooele City. Those acres including the 167-acre temple and neighborhood property.
Brent Bateman, an attorney for Durham Jones and Pinegar, said he filed the petition for annexation on behalf of his clients. The church is not involved in any effort to annex the land.