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BLUFFDALE — The Bluffdale City Council on Tuesday narrowly voted against what could be seen as a last-ditch attempt to appease two land developers attempting to pull 4,000 acres of undeveloped land from this rural city.

On a contentious 3-2 vote, the council denied a zoning change that would have applied the city's mixed-use (MU) zone to parts of Area 4, a 4,000-acre chunk of land on Bluffdale's southwest corner that makes up about 40 percent of the city's land area.

Councilwoman Laurie Maxfield moved that the change be denied, blaming the newly elected mayor and council members — and a vocal residents' group — for the city's previous inability to come to a deal with the developers. She said the MU zone was not appropriate for Area 4 and approving it would be compromising good planning in reaction to a political controversy.

The land is mostly owned by two developers who have been seeking to develop it for years. The landowners, South Farms and South Hills Development, want to build residential and commercial developments at densities higher than most of the rest of Bluffdale, which is made up largely of one-acre lots.

But in December 2003, when the council denied their application for a zoning change, the developers filed a disconnection lawsuit, seeking to de-annex the land. That land would then either become an unincorporated part of Salt Lake County or could be annexed by nearby Herriman.

The city has since attempted to negotiate with the developers, creating a zoning category called the special development plan, or SDP, which could be applied to Area 4 and would allow the whole area to be master-planned at once. However, residents opposed to the development formed a group called Bluffdale United and began collecting signatures for a referendum to bring the SDP to a public vote.

Then, earlier this fall, the council voted to approve two consent decrees that included a development agreement with the developers. The consent decrees were brought before 3rd District Judge Anthony Quinn in the developers' disconnection lawsuit, with both the city and the developers asking him to accept the agreement and dismiss the suit.

But Quinn refused to accept the agreement, saying he was being asked to step into a political disagreement over land use when the lawsuit was solely about a proposed disconnection.

Tuesday's vote pitted outgoing council member Maxfield and returning Councilwoman Martha Speed against recently defeated Mayor Wayne Mortimer, defeated Councilman Morris Clark and returning Councilman Craig Briggs. Clark and Maxfield, who did not run for re-election, are being replaced by two council candidates who are members of Bluffdale United, and Mortimer's replacement, Claudia Anderson, is also a Bluffdale United member.

Speed said she was opposed to applying the MU to Area 4 because it would tie the hands of the incoming council, who should be left to deal with the disconnection lawsuit.

"Through the whole process of this, I have refused to react on my fears," Speed said, acknowledging that she worried about the disconnection but saying she believes the law is on Bluffdale's side. "Let's give the rule of law a chance. And you don't if you just cater to (the developers)."

Mortimer does not have a vote on the council, so the issue came down to the vote of Councilman Jesse Kelly, who ultimately voted against the zoning change.

"I've been accused of waffling on this," he said before voting. "You're damned right I have. This has been a difficult issue."

Mortimer pleaded with the council to vote for the zoning change. He said he fully expected the new council and mayor to reverse the vote once they take over but called the zoning change the city's last chance to show Judge Quinn and the developers that they are willing to compromise and work on an agreement.

With the zoning change failing to be approved Tuesday, the disconnection suit will continue with developers still unable to get what they want from the city. City officials, including attorney Dale Gardiner, have said they believe if the suit goes to trial — which it could as soon as February — the developers have a good chance of winning. That, they worry, would mean the development would go on as the developers want, but without Bluffdale having any control over it or reaping any of the tax benefits.