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S.L. steps up legal battle in soccer complex dispute

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 18 2011 7:49 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — City officials plan to pull $25,000 from city reserves to hire outside counsel to assist in the city's legal battle with an environmental group over plans to build a soccer complex near the Jordan River.

The Jordan River Restoration Network has filed four lawsuits against the city in the past year in an effort to stop construction of the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex near 1900 West and 2200 North.

During a work session Tuesday, a majority of the City Council favored shifting $25,000 from the city's fund balance into its general fund to battle the legal challenges. A decision on that budget amendment and 32 others — collectively totaling a little more than $1 million — likely will be decided next month.

The move is being precipitated by the slow progress of those lawsuits and the potential for others in the future, according to the Salt Lake City Attorney's Office.

Two of the lawsuits filed by the nonprofit environmental advocacy group relate to a dispute over access to public records; another appeals a rezone and master plan amendments; and the other challenges the Proposition 5 bond approved by voters in 2003.

City attorney Ed Rutan said the funds would be used to bring in someone with expertise in such cases to serve as a consultant to the city's team of attorneys.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Jeff Salt of the Jordan River Restoration Network said the lawsuits will continue as long as the city plans to build the soccer complex near the Jordan River.

"We think it's folly for the city to keep spending money (in court) when the simple solution is to build the soccer complex someplace else," Salt said.

Councilman Soren Simonsen, who along with Van Turner voiced opposition to committing more taxpayer money to the legal fight, said he believes city officials used "bad judgment" when denying the Jordan River Restoration Network's requests for copies of public documents.

Subsequent lawsuits may have been avoided had the city simply complied with that request, he said.

"The litigation started because we wouldn't release documents," Simonsen said. "The value of those documents was a couple thousand dollars in printing copies and staff time. Now we're spending $25,000."

Council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love called the group's requests and resulting lawsuits "unreasonable."

Rutan said the city has provided the Jordan River Restoration Network with 6,500 pages of documents related to the soccer complex in response to the group's requests.

Simonsen said that still doesn't represent all of the documents the group requested.

"The documents were requested to stall the project. You know that," Love countered. "There will never be enough documents to satisfy them."

In one of the Jordan River Restoration Network's lawsuits against the city, the group alleges that the sports complex approved by voters in 2003 is "significantly and materially different" from the project on which the city now intends to use the bond money. The group also alleges that the city failed to properly provide notice of public meetings and actions related to the bond.

The lawsuit regarding the bond has prevented the Salt Lake City Council from authorizing the sale of $15.3 million in voter-approved bonds, at least temporarily.

City attorneys say the legal challenge is "without merit" and have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The Jordan River Restoration Network also has a lawsuit pending against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In that lawsuit, the group appeals the corps' issuance of a permit that allowed the city to move forward with the project near the Jordan River.

The Jordan River Restoration Network contends that the corps violated provisions of the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedures Act when it approved a wetland fill permit for the project. The group wants that permit to be declared invalid and returned to the corps for reconsideration.

City leaders held a groundbreaking ceremony in early November for the $22.8 million first phase of the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex.

City officials plan to use the $15.3 million bond and a $7.5 million gift from Real Salt Lake to fund construction of 15 competition-quality soccer fields and one championship field with permanent bleachers and lights.

Members of the Jordan River Restoration Network say they aren't opposed to development of a soccer complex in Salt Lake City. But they say it doesn't belong along the Jordan River.

e-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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