A new community activists' group has formed in opposition to a referendum bill that could threaten citizens' ability to take a proposed issue directly to a popular vote.

Although the sponsoring senator says the bill isn't likely to run this legislative session, the Utah Alliance for Citizens' Rights doesn't buy his statement and fears the proposed bill may pop up in an amendment or substitute.

"The motivation here is to make the process more difficult," said Robyn Bagley, a member of Save Our Communities (SOC). The group of Sandy residents pushed for a citywide vote last November on a big-box development at a 107-acre gravel pit in the city.

Save Our Communities is one of at least 10 citizen activist groups along the Wasatch Front that formed the Utah Alliance for Citizens' Rights. It came together to oppose an anti-zoning bill, SB170, sponsored by Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, and a so-called replacement to that bill being run by Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch.

Hatch's bill, titled "Referendum in Local Governments" and which has not been written, is meant to standardize the requirements for a citizen referendum, Hatch said. For a referendum to be valid in most first- or second-class cities, residents must collect signatures from at least 20 percent of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. For smaller cities, the standard is about 35 percent.

"I didn't like the idea that we have two standards," said Hatch, who said he "very well" might be inclined to lower the referendum standard to a uniform 20 percent.

But members of the Utah Alliance for Citizens' Rights said in a letter to lawmakers that Hatch's measure "reportedly seeks to significantly restrict the referendum right."

"We urge you to remember that the people's rights of initiative and referendum are guaranteed in the Utah Constitution, and are not to be 'effectively abrogated, severely limited, or unduly burdened by the procedures enacted to enable the right,' " the letter reads.

Collecting signatures under the current requirements is already an "extremely difficult" task, Bagley said.

"I don't think personal opinions should dictate land decisions," she said. "The bottom line is there's been a handful of referendums in the past 10 to 15 years. If there had been more, that doesn't mean there's a problem with referendums. That means there's a problem with policy."

Hatch said Wednesday that the talk about his bill is "purely speculation." He also said the measure was not tied to Mansell's SB170 and was not run as a result of the Sandy gravel pit.

"It really is not," he said, adding that "we're getting a long way down the road and I haven't pursued this bill. I highly doubt it will come out this year."

E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com; astowell@desnews.com