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Referendum aimed at stopping Olympia Hills development ‘dead in the water’

Land between 6300 West and 8500 West and 12400 South and 13100 South in unincorporated Salt Lake County, foreground, is pictured on Monday, March 11, 2019.
Land between 6300 West and 8500 West and 12400 South and 13100 South in unincorporated Salt Lake County, foreground, is pictured on Monday, March 11, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The referendum aimed at stopping the controversial Olympia Hills development in Herriman was suspended Thursday.

Utah for Responsible Growth, the citizen group driving the referendum, received a memo from the office of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox that made the referendum “impossible,” said Lorin Palmer, one of the group’s founding members.

“We’re disappointed, we’re frustrated,” Palmer told the Deseret News on Thursday.

It all comes down to a question of how referendum sponsors would make required information available under signature gathering procedures tailored to carrying out the process even as the COVID-19 outbreak rages.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s original executive order, which was modeled after the same order that allowed political campaigns to collect signatures electronically in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, suspended the the stipulation that required “the referendum sponsor to attach physically a copy of the law that is the subject of the referendum.”

But the new memo from Cox’s office states “the sponsor still must furnish a copy of the law that is the subject of the referendum.”

The law in question is 277 pages long, which, if distributed to the roughly 60,000 households needed to gather 82,000 signatures, would amount to almost 16 million pieces of paper and cost over $1 million, according to a news release from Utah for Responsible Growth.

Representatives from Cox’s office told Utah for Responsible Growth that anyone looking to sign the referendum can still print off the single signature form rather than all 277 pages, then sign it, scan it and digitally reattach it to the original document file.

But Palmer says that’s unrealistic.

“They’re trying to say we can email that and people can print it off and reattach it somehow,” said Palmer. “But I wouldn’t know how to do that.”

According to Palmer, an official from Cox’s office told Utah for Responsible Growth that the signatures already gathered, which Palmer estimates are in the thousands, are invalid.

“Every way we interpreted this was OK,” said Palmer, who insists Salt Lake County Clerk Sherri Swenson was “100% on board with our process.”

Adding to Palmer’s frustration, he said, was that even though the memo was dated April 3, Utah for Responsible Growth didn’t receive it until Wednesday, April 7.

The Deseret News reached out to the offices of both Cox and Swenson, but representatives were not immediately available.

Going forward, Palmer said Utah for Responsible Growth is considering filing a lawsuit against the state, and said the group’s legal counsel thinks it has a “very strong case.”

But to do so, the citizen group would need to raise around $25,000, which Palmer said would be a tall order.

“We don’t have it,” he said. “And we don’t know if we feel good about asking people to donate to this right now, when they’re already fighting for basic necessities.”

The Olympia Hills development, which has been revised once, reviewed by two Salt Lake County mayors and seen multiple County Council votes, has faced backlash almost every step of the way.

The development would bring 6,300 housing units to 933 acres in west Herriman, with contemporary housing, neighborhood parks, commercial centers and a 100-acre Utah State University agricultural center. Residents concerned about the scale of the project and its impact on existing infrastructure that they believe is insufficient have raised a sustained and vocal opposition.

In March, county officials and Utah for Responsible Growth kicked off the referendum, which received a raucous standing ovation during a meeting at Mountain Ridge High School in Herriman. But now, Palmer said, it’s “dead in the water.”

“A referendum is supposed to be hard to do, it’s not supposed to be easy. But it’s not supposed to be impossible either.”