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How moving the Tooele temple halted a recount battle

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An artistic rendering of the Deseret Peak Utah Temple, previously known as the Tooele Valley Utah Temple. 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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The backstory about the abandoned plans to build a Latter-day Saint temple in the Tooele Valley of Utah is about a decision by senior church leaders to avoid contention and division.

On Tuesday, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would not build the Tooele Valley Utah Temple in Erda, Utah. The decision stalled a year’s worth of work on the temple design and halted a housing development process.

Instead, the church will take the same exact building design and construct the Deseret Peak Temple a seven-minute drive away in Tooele. The new temple is named for the highest peak in the area.

The rest of the story includes a recount, a court case and a legal decision that provided opportunities to fight for the original project.

That project included more than a temple. The church said it needed to build a development of homes and park area around the temple on the valley floor in Erda to provide infrastructure and secure the future of the temple’s surroundings. With widespread support, the County Commission approved the church’s plan to build the temple and housing development by a 2-1 June 2020 vote.

A temple groundbreaking appeared imminent.

But within days, residents who lived near the proposed site and felt it would alter the rural nature of the area launched a petition drive to put the issue on a future county ballot in the form of a referendum.

To trigger a referendum, county leaders said 9.5% of voters needed to sign the petition, a total of 2,445. That threshold also needed to be met in four of five districts in the county.

As the deadline neared for collecting the signatures, the county attorney determined on Aug. 13 that Utah law actually required 16% or 4,119 signatures. County leaders, however, decided that with eight days left to the deadline, there was too little time to force that higher threshold on the petitioners.

County leaders informed the church of their decision, but the church chose not to object. Five days later, with the petition drive still underway and the outcome still in doubt, the church announced it was withdrawing its plan to build the residential development in Erda.

“We acknowledge the efforts of those who have raised questions and sincere concerns about the Tooele Valley temple project, including the residential development surrounding the temple. There is a sincere desire on the part of the church to avoid discord in the community,” the First Presidency said in a statement. “Therefore, regardless of the outcome of a pending signature-gathering effort, we have determined to withdraw our rezoning request for the residential portion of the temple project.”

The drama continued.

On Aug. 26, the county clerk declared that the petition had failed, though it had exceeded the 2,445 total signatures. The petition had met the 9.5% threshold in only three of the five districts, not four.

The county clerk disqualified a number of signatures, most because the signees were not registered to vote in Tooele County or had bad addresses, or signatures did not match voting records or were duplicates.

The petition’s sponsors sued and a recount was held. An election judge and the attorney reversed some of those decisions and certified the petition.

Again the church was offered the opportunity to object. Twice the church declined, the county attorney said, according to reporting by the Tooele Transcript Bulletin. County leaders then decided to put the referendum on the ballot for the next countywide election in 2022.

That is now moot, and not only because the church withdrew its plans. On Dec. 15, 2020, the county commission reversed its June decision. It voted to reapply a farmland designation to the church’s property in Erda. The housing development won’t be built and the church does not have plans to develop that land.

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