A measure once described as a "developers' dream bill" is raising questions about ethics, influence peddling on Utah's Capitol Hill and possible conflicts of interest among state lawmakers.
The bill, known as SB170, failed to win approval during the recent legislative session. But its repercussions are still being felt in relationships between local governments and development groups.
The bill would have changed municipal land-use decisions to benefit individual landowners.
"It was a lot of crap thrown at the wall," said Jodi Hoffman, attorney and lobbyist for the Utah League of Cities and Towns. "What we have at the end of this is a trust issue."
Hoffman was one of four panelists who spoke Tuesday during a debate sponsored by the Urban Land Institute of Utah. The discussion centered around SB170 and other land-use bills that either passed or failed during the 2006 session.
No one during the debate spoke openly about issues of power and influence that have surrounded SB170. But Hoffman and other attendees, in later conversations, questioned the effect of special-interest groups on land-use discussions in Utah, particularly in the creation of SB170.
Proponents of the bill deny any overriding influence by developers on the decisions of lawmakers. Even so, state financial-disclosure forms show significant contributions to lawmakers by developers and realtor groups. A quick tally of lawmakers and their listed professions showed at least 20 have have been involved in land development or real estate.
The bill was partially written by an attorney, Michael Hutchings, who represents Anderson Development, a Sandy company. Records from lobbyists for Anderson Development show contributions made to at least 25 Utah lawmakers.
Hutchings' law firm Hutchings, Baird and Jones also employs House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy. Last year, Curtis received a $7,500 donation from the Utah Association of Realtors and a $1,000 donation from The Home Builders Association of the State of Utah, according to state records.
Curtis said Tuesday that while he had "definitely supported" certain parts of SB170, he saw no conflict of interest in having accepted the donations.
Other lawmakers also have ties to the development industry. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, is a real estate broker and president of the National Association of Realtors. Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, received at least $3,000 last year from the Utah Association of Realtors.
Oda on Tuesday said he had supported parts of the bill but hadn't had an opportunity to review it fully before the measure died. He also denied that the donations influenced his decision making. "Everybody who makes a donation knows they're not buying my vote," he said. "They're not buying a patsy."
Mansell could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
Mike Ostermiller, representing the Utah Association of Realtors and the Weber-North Davis Association of Realtors, said the donations were unrelated to SB170.
"A lot is made out of the fact that the realtors have a large PAC and developers have given a lot of money to campaigns," he said. "Remember, cities also have a lot of influence."
While the Utah League of Cities and Towns has raised questions of trust, Ostermiller, who lobbied in support of SB170, said no bad feelings exist on the part of realtors and developers. Meanwhile, work to revise land-use statutes will continue, he said.Wilf Sommerkorn, director of the Davis County Community and Economic Development office, said Tuesday's debate made it clear that citizens "ain't seen the end" of discussion about land-use, and people must "step up and exercise leadership on this issue."