In clear support of voters, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday that residents who oppose a Wal-Mart in Sandy have won the right to hold a citywide referendum on the dispute.

The state's high court said Friday that Save Our Communities, a group of Sandy residents who have fought big box development, had enough signatures to force a referendum on a zoning change that would allow development on a 107-acre former gravel pit at 1000 East and 9400 South.

The 5-0 decision means residents across Utah will have an easier time getting their issues onto the ballot, potentially bolstering grass-roots efforts statewide.

"You can fight city hall," said Cynthia Long from Save Our Communities. "If you believe in something, you should speak up and try to make a difference in something that truly matters to you."

At issue was the percentage of signatures needed for referendum petitions. The court clarified that zoning changes are not land-use laws, which require referendum petitions to have signatures of 20 percent of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election. After this decision, zoning law referenda need signatures from 10 percent of voters.

"We are confident that the ability to exercise the referendum power over the full range of zoning matters acted upon by a city council . . . will not wreak havoc upon the smooth operation of municipalities," said Justice Matthew Durrant in the unanimous opinion. "All acts taken by a city council in a city organized pursuant to the council-mayor form of government are necessarily legislative and subject to referenda."

The case came after a yearlong battle between residents and Sandy city officials, who generally advocated allowing Wal-Mart and Lowe's Home Improvement stores to be part of a development at the old gravel pit, dubbed Pebblebrook by the Boyer Co. Save Our Communities organized a petition drive last December for a referendum against the zoning change, but the Sandy recorder's office said the drive fell short because it needed signatures from 20 percent of the voters. This case came from that disagreement.

In arguments to the Supreme Court, the Boyer Co., which wants to develop the site, argued that it had a vested right to proceed with Pebblebrook because the city already had approved the zoning change. But the court disagreed, meaning that in the future, property owners may be less able to argue that they have a right to speedy development even if cities change laws for them.

"We conclude that the exercise of the people's referendum right is of such importance that it properly overrides 'individual economic interests,' " Durrant wrote. "The referendum right, so fundamental to our conception of government, should not and cannot be so easily thwarted."

Representatives from the Boyer Co. did not return phone calls Friday by deadline.

Contentious referenda have divided communities before. Riverton residents lost a Supreme Court battle last August to challenge a zoning change that would have allowed a Wal-Mart. The residents had gathered enough signatures for the referendum, but then the Riverton City Council rescinded its initial zoning change in favor of several smaller zoning changes, thus rendering the signatures moot. The court ruled that Riverton city officials acted in good faith when changing the zoning ordinances the second time.

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Sandy likely will hold its referendum during the Nov. 8 general election, although the city had not fully researched requirements, said spokesman Ryan Mecham. Now, attorneys for Save Our Communities and the city must develop language for the referendum, but "there's nothing critical that I anticipate will be a problem," said Walter Miller, Sandy city attorney.

Eric Berger, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said the company's lawyers were reviewing the decision. "We'll continue to look for opportunities to serve our customers and bring the positive benefits of jobs and sales tax revenue of our stores to communities in Utah," he said.


E-mail: kswinyard@desnews.com