An affordable-housing lawsuit against Summit County is just a ruse to fill developers' pockets, county officials say.
The suit, filed last week by the NAACP, Utah Coalition of La Raza and the Disabled Rights Action Committee, charges Summit County with using zoning laws to block affordable housing and minority groups from the mountain region.
But County Attorney David Thomas said those minority groups are being used by landowners and Anderson Development, a co-plaintiff in the suit that has been pushing the county to allow higher densities in the Snyderville Basin.
"Pulling in the NAACP and these minority groups to try to make their profit, that was not the intent of the Fair Housing Act," Thomas said. "It's a tactic to try to get publicity."
None of the three minority groups initiated the legal action and none of them would receive a cut of the $40 million in damages sought by the lawsuit.
"They're just being used," said Shelley Weiss, executive director of the Community Outreach Program for minorities in Park City. "It's a disgusting ploy by the developer to get higher densities and more value for their property."
But Michael Hutchings, a Salt Lake attorney representing the minority groups, said county leaders are the ones abusing minority groups by enforcing a density of one unit per 20 acres in the Snyderville Basin. That zoning, he said, nearly eliminates the possibility of building affordable homes for minorities who work in Park City and the county.
"For Summit County officials to say these groups are being misused in some way is pretty hollow," he said. "Talk about misuse it's Summit County that isn't allowing any of these minority groups to buy homes."
Anderson Development already has another lawsuit pending against Summit County requesting a zone change to allow a big-box development in the Silver Creek region.
The latest suit, Thomas said, is a last-ditch effort by the developer to increase land values, not to provide affordable housing. A preliminary plan by Anderson to develop 500 acres in the Snyderville Basin did not even show a substantial affordable housing component, he said.
The plan did set aside roughly 42 acres of the development for multi-family homes, which Hutchings estimated would total about 620 apartments. All of those apartments would meet affordable housing requirements, he said, and about 7 percent of them would be handicapped accessible.
"This is just smoke and mirrors by the county," Hutchings said. "This is the fairly typical denial of a problem."
Using a front of affordable housing to get higher-density zoning is not a new tactic, Thomas said. Hutchings and Anderson Development launched a similar suit against Bluffdale in 2000 over a zoning regulation of one unit per acre.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Disabled Rights Action Committee were also involved in that suit, as well as a similar pending claim in Fruit Heights being pushed by Hutchings.
"They've made somewhat of a boutique business out of it," Thomas said.
But Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake branch, said the lawsuit is in sync with the group's goal to eradicate housing discrimination.
Williams said that she did not feel the NAACP was exploited as the lead plaintiff in the pro-bono case. Similar lawsuits backed by the group against other regions will likely be cropping up soon, she said.
"It would be unimaginable for us to refuse pro-bono legal services in conjunction with our goals," she said. "We have always had to fight our battles through the courts."
Archie Archuleta, chairman of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, said he doesn't care if developers get rich as a byproduct of the lawsuit. The main goal, he said, is still to get more affordable housing in Summit County.
"The bottom line is that developers are trying to make money. That's the name of the game," Archuleta said. "If those developments will include poor and minority people, hey, I think we should be for it."
But affordable housing is already available in Summit County, Thomas said. According to state standards, the county has nearly 1,800 units of moderate-income housing and 600 units of low-income affordable condos, townhouses and single-family homes, he said. The county also has about 120 rental apartments that fall into the low-income category.
Those units are locked in as affordable housing and will never go above $220,000, the market cap determined by a state affordable housing formula.
Most of the units, Thomas said, were recently approved by the county and are under construction throughout the Snyderville Basin in projects like Bear Hollow, Foxpoint and Newpark.
County regulations require 10 percent of all new developments to be affordable housing.
"We wish the NAACP and La Raza had come in and really talked to us before they got involved in this lawsuit," Thomas said. "I think in the end they're going to get a black eye."
The county does not, however, have a formal affordable housing plan mandated by a 1996 state statute. Hutchings said that noncompliance shows the county's lax commitment to providing housing for minority groups."Summit County is playing with numbers, and they're still living in some kind of fantasy world," Hutchings said. "I defy them to show us where these units are and that they will meet the needs of lower-income people."