SANDY — A face-off among the city's three mayoral candidates Thursday marked the beginning of what could be an ugly campaign season.

The two front-runners, incumbent Tom Dolan and Gary Forbush, have their battle for the city's top elected post rooted in the fate of the 107-acre former gravel pit at 9400 South and 1000 East.

During a Sandy Chamber of Commerce meeting, Dolan, Forbush and Drake Meyer spoke and fielded questions about the site, which has a fueled a monthslong controversy reaching the state's highest court.

At issue is the desire of the Boyer Co., to develop a Wal-Mart, Lowe's Home Improvement store, numerous other stores, housing and offices on the property — a proposal that prompted a hotly contested zoning change approved last November.

Dolan, a three-term mayor who defines his tenure in office with the accompanying development in the city, supports the zoning change and thus Boyer Co.'s efforts.

Forbush is a member of Save Our Communities and through that group has pushed for a voter referendum in hopes of defeating Boyer's plans.

It is unclear where Meyer — who has said his primary interests lie with his accounting business and that he does not closely follow Sandy government — stands on the issue.

Confusion at Thursday's event centered on a dispute between Save Our Communities and the pro-development camp. When Save Our Communities was gathering signatures at the end of last year and beginning of this year for the ballot referendum, some signature gatherers asked residents if they would prefer a park or a parking lot at the gravel pit.

Dolan and his supporters called that question misleading. Sandy does not own the land, may not even have enough money to purchase the land for a park, and wants the substantial sales tax money that would come from putting retail development on the site. The park, which would cost millions to build, would not be a revenue generator for city coffers.

A park would cost "tens of millions of dollars of funds that the city does not have and that we (would) use for police, fire, roads and the basic service of the community," Dolan said. "This is not about a park or a Wal-Mart. This is a vote about whether the new zone is a better zone than the old zone."

Chris McCandless, who is running unopposed for District 4 of the Sandy City Council, asked Forbush why the Save Our Communities' Web site still referred to a park at the controversial site, whether Forbush had asked the property owners about building a park, and whether he would consider using eminent domain if property owners did not want to build a park.

"I would appreciate it if you would change your strategies," McCandless said. "If this referendum succeeds and the zoning fails, we as a council have to come up with the $50 to $90 million for a park."

A 107-acre park would be nice, Forbush said, but community pressures likely will make it impossible.

"I don't know that we can afford to build a 100-acre park," Forbush said. "For me, the referendum is not about a park, and it's really not about Wal-Mart. It's about whether the citizens were heard during these public hearings."

After a long series of public hearings, the Sandy City Council voted last November to approve a zoning change that allows large retailers and dozens of other uses. Save Our Communities has been fighting the change through the court system, and it won a Utah Supreme Court decision July 1 that said Sandy had to hold a referendum on the zoning change. Now, the group is asking the Supreme Court to write the language of the referendum; the court will hear arguments on that request Wednesday.

Meyer was a relatively silent voice throughout the discussion. The certified public accountant faces an uphill battle to distinguish himself before the Oct. 4 primary when voters will narrow the field to two.