As a resident of Sandy, Cynthia Long feels like her voice as a citizen is being taken away.
This month, an attorney representing Long and several other Sandy residents argued before the Utah Supreme Court that the city of Sandy should put a citizen initiative on next November's ballot that questions the City Council's wisdom in giving the green light to a big-box development at the site of a gravel pit.
"I think what's at stake is the citizens' right to get involved," Long said outside the Supreme Court chambers after oral arguments. "If you disagree with what the administration is saying, then what is your only option?"
The group, Save Our Communities, had gathered 6,425 signatures for a referendum to reverse zoning decisions made by Sandy for a Boyer Co. retail project. Under Utah law, citizens have a right to petition for a referendum to be put to a public vote.
Typically, the law requires that the petition contain signatures equaling 10 percent of voters within a city who voted in the last gubernatorial election. However, many elected officials in Utah have been concerned with citizen groups using referendums to undermine their decisions. In 1999, the Utah Legislature doubled the required signatures for referendums that deal with land-use issues, requiring 20 percent of voter signatures.
"In what types of decisions should the people have a direct voice?" attorney Robert Hughes asked the justices.
Hughes added people need a direct voice in decisions that change the face of their community.
At issue is whether Sandy's zoning decision was considered an administrative or a legislative action. An administrative action is one that uses current city law as a basis while a legislative action is one that makes a profound change to those laws. Administrative actions are not subject to referendum, under Utah law.
Hughes argued Sandy's decision to allow the development diverged enough from city ordinances that it should be considered a legislative action.
Jeffery Williams, attorney for Boyer Co. and also representing Sandy city and Gibbons Realty, argued the city's zoning approval for the project did not conflict with the city's long-term plans for the gravel pit and therefore was not a drastic divergence. As far as the 10 or 20 percent requirement for signatures, "This is a land-use law, there's no doubt about it," Williams said, arguing that under law Save Our Communities needed 7,940 signatures instead of the 6,425 the group gathered.
At stake is the final defining stroke for Sandy.
"This is the last big unimproved parcel in the city," Hughes said.
Steve Mouty's home is located above the gravel pit. After attending Monday's hearing, Mouty said he is concerned the already-congested traffic in his area will get worse.
Long said without a referendum it will be too late for citizens to voice their dissatisfaction in the elections for City Council and mayor the development already will be completed.
Williams said the city has filed a motion with the Supreme Court asking that if the court rules in favor of Save Our Communities, because Boyer has a "vested interest" already in the property, that the court declare the issue moot in this particular case even though the ruling could help other citizen groups in other Utah cities.Both sides have asked the court for a quick response on the issue. Attorneys expect to see a ruling within the month.