A controversial 120 acres of open space is set to fall under the newest, most restrictive zoning in Salt Lake City.

The foothill acreage within Salt Lake City's border but owned by North Salt Lake could be slapped with a natural open space zone, keeping the area safe from any development including parks and cemeteries that normally are allowed in open space areas.

"We're looking for places where we retain an area or space in its natural condition," City Councilman Dale Lambert said. "We're trying to distinguish between sort of undeveloped natural open space rather than something that has been changed."

The City Council will decide tonight whether to apply the recently created natural open space zone to 80 acres of land owned by North Salt lake and 40 acres of surrounding land. The land has been at the center of a battle between the two cities and is currently embroiled in a lawsuit by North Salt Lake to disconnect the land from Salt Lake City.

North Salt Lake leaders want to put housing on 20 of the acres and use 10 for a cemetery. Groomed trails could be built on the remaining acreage, city officials say.

But the natural open space zone could thwart those plans, preventing anything but natural trails. Staving off that development is one of the primary goals of the zone change, Lambert said, because development on the acreage could "ruin the characteristic of the area."

"It's not something that can be divided in half. There's a flat area that needs to be kept together, and if you lose that, you really lose the value of it as natural open space," he said.

The area is along the former Bonneville Shoreline bench and boasts a shallow basin created by prehistoric lakes, Lambert said, making it a naturally valuable area that would be changed by putting developed parks — let alone homes — on the acreage.

But Brent Hatch, an attorney representing North Salt Lake in the land debate, said Salt Lake City officials may be just "spinning their wheels" because the land could still be disconnected and joined with North Salt Lake.

The suit filed by North Salt Lake would transfer the land away from Salt Lake City and allow it to be annexed into North Salt Lake so city leaders can develop it as they want.

"If we prevail in that, it will be almost meaningless what they do," he said. "They're playing games because they're trying to get off cheap."

Salt Lake City Councilman Carlton Christensen added that city leaders are also looking for other regions of the city that could benefit from the natural open space zone.

"I think it's clear the open space nature of our zoning needed a higher level of refinement in this particular location," he said. "We've also had some discussion that we probably need to address other areas of our city, not only in the foothills or the benches."


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com