Granite board hears pleas to save business

Published: Wednesday, March 2 2011 2:51 a.m. MST

Jeremy Smith, oldest son of owner Steve Smith, replaces a radiator hose at Steve's Automotive Specialists in Salt Lake City.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A few hundred residents concerned about Granite School District's plans to force out a local auto repair shop to accommodate a rebuild of Olympus High School packed the district offices Tuesday night.

Supported by a standing-room-only crowd as he addressed the Granite Board of Education via video, Steve Smith pleaded with the board to revise construction plans to allow his family business to remain operating at 3911 S. 2300 East in Holladay.

"I don't see any reason why they can't adjust things and just leave us where we are," Smith, owner of Steve's Automotive Specialists, said in a video presentation shown to the board by attorney Walter Keane.

Granite District officials plan to rebuild Olympus High to bring it up to current construction codes and better accommodate a growing student body. The district is proposing to rebuild the school at its existing location at 4055 S. 2300 East, rather than temporarily relocating students for up to three years — a decision district officials say will would save "tens of millions of dollars"

But keeping the school open during construction would require new structures to be built farther north and south, closer to 3900 South and 2300 East.

Since 1977, the quarter-acre lot on the southeast corner of those streets has been occupied by Steve's Automotive Specialists, a family-owned auto repair shop operated by Smith and four of his sons.

Smith has 20 years remaining on the lease he signed with property owner Wayne Smart. Smith doesn't want to move, nor does his business have anywhere to go, he said.

"If you look at the property, it's less than 1 percent of the whole project," Smith told the Deseret News prior to Tuesday's meeting. "They don't need it, but they've decided they want it."

Keane, representing Smith and Smart, called the district's plans to take the property by eminent domain "the deterioration of a 30-year American dream."

"Mr. Smith and his family have been at that location for over 30 years," he said, calling on the board to be sensitive to the the property owner and business owner before making a decision.

Also appearing in the video, Smart said he doesn't want to lose the property that has been in his family since his grandfather settled in the area in 1870. Smart and Smith said the lease between them was structured to provide retirement income for Smart and his sister.

"We would encourage you to look at other options," Smart told the board in the video.

Keane also requested a meeting with district officials in hopes of reaching a compromise, an opportunity he said his clients thus far had not been offered.

Before leaving the district offices Tuesday, Keane said Superintendent Martin Bates had agreed to such a meeting.

"We've achieved a victory tonight," the attorney told the crowd of 200-plus people who attended the meeting in support of Smith.

The rebuild of Olympus High is being funded as part of the $256 million bond approved by voters in November 2009. The footprint for the school covers 23 acres — the smallest of any school in the district. Most of the district's high schools are built on between 40 acres and 45 acres, said Ben Horsley, district spokesman.

"While the addition of this property doesn't enhance (the footprint) significantly, the fact that we're rebuilding on the same site is quite significant," Horsley said.

District officials have been working to acquire the property since January 2010. According to a timeline of communication between the school district and the property owner, an offer to buy the property was made in March. That deal, believed to be in the neighborhood of $500,000, was rejected by Smart in April.

In May, district officials began working with Smith to relocate his business. In July, the district presented the business owner a list of four "comparable properties in the immediate vicinity that would be suitable for relocation" of Steve's Automotive Specialists, according to the timeline prepared by district officials.

Part of the video presentation Tuesday showed Smith and his sons visiting the proposed relocation sites and explaining why none of them would accommodate the business. In one case, the property owner wasn't interested in a lease and wanted to sell the land for $2 million. Another property owner wouldn't agree to more than a one-year lease.

"We have nowhere to go," Smith said.

The Granite Board of Education is expected to decide whether to initiate eminent domain proceedings when it meets April 5.

Board President Gayleen Gandy encouraged those in attendance to put their opinions on the issue in writing and send either a letter or an e-mail to board members prior to next month's meeting.

"I think I can safely speak for the board that we are open to listening and hearing what you have to say," Gandy said. "That is why we are not taking action on this tonight."

e-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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