It has been a long time coming, on a crooked road, but indications are that the 13-year-old Holladay-Cottonwood incorporation effort may actually make it to voters next winter.

Incorporation proponents presented the Salt Lake County Commission with an incorporation petition late last year, and a feasibility study has now been completed.That study shows that county tax revenue lost to the incorporation area of about 15,000 people, approximately $5.3 million annually, would be balanced by an approximately equal reduction in costs.

"It looks pretty good right now," said commission Chairman Brent Overson.

The commission has set two public hearings on the matter, after which it can vote to put incorporation before voters, assuming certain requirements are met.

Hearings are set for:

- 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 14, at Oakwood Elementary School, 5815 Highland Drive.

- 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, at Olympus Junior High, 2217 E. 4800 South.

The proposed incorporation boundaries run approximately from Highland Drive to Wasatch Boulevard and from 4500 South to I-215.

Incorporation proponents had to get the signatures of the owners of 10 percent of the acreage in the area to get the process started. They will have 18 months from the date of the second hearing to get an additional 20 percent to get an election scheduled.

If everything proceeds according to plan, those signatures will be gathered by November in hopes of scheduling an election for next February or, at the latest, May.

"We expect a year from now, in the June primary, to be electing our city officials," said Liane Stillman, one of those pushing the incorporation effort.

Incorporation of Holladay-Cottonwood into a city went before the voters once before, in 1985, when it was defeated.

Since then, however, general attitudes appear to have changed toward incorporation. There have been various drives to get the issue to election (all unsuccessful for a variety of legalistic reasons) and other cities, most recently Taylorsville, have incorporated in the interim.

"We're playing by the rules, we don't seem to have any political enemies out there," Stillman said. "I think this time we'll do it."

A long and tortuous road

The latest effort culminates a tortuous process that began in April 1994 when residents Stillman, Tom Nelson and Tricia Toph-am presented the County Commission with an incorporation petition for a relatively small area including about 6,000 residences and the Cottonwood Mall.

The proposed city would have had a $1 million revenue surplus over costs because of sales tax coming from the mall. Cottonwood Mall is a cash cow for the county, one of the few large generators of sales tax left in the unincorporated area.

Predictably, county commissioners had a cow themselves.

The incorporation and loss of the mall revenue would have meant residents of unincorporated Salt Lake County would have had to pay much more for services through higher property taxes.

That fall commissioners refused to schedule an election, though there was some legal question as to whether they had that option.

Thus ensued a four-year morass of lawsuits, changing laws, vast complications with townships, repeated incorporation petition efforts and bickering between county officials as to legal requirements.

"It was looney tunes," said commission chief of staff David Marshall.

After the commission refused to schedule the election in September 1994, incorporation proponents sued to force their hand. A few months later a 3rd District judge agreed with the residents and scheduled the election, but the county appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, and the case languished.

In the meantime, residents and commissioners began negotiating on a revenue-sharing arrangement, whereby Cottonwood Mall sales tax would go partially to the new city and partially to the county.

After months of talks, however, the whole thing fell apart in the summer of 1995 since, among other problems, there was no one who could legally bind the not-yet-existing city.

Then there were townships

The next year, 1996, the Utah Legislature passed the confusing and much-maligned township law, allowing unincorporated areas to organize themselves but stop short of being a city.

After the legislative session, in April 1996, Holladay-Cottonwood city proponents offered to drop the Cottonwood Mall.

That was just what the commission wanted to hear, and it hastened to set an election date for that summer. But just as the party was getting started, County Attorney Doug Short stepped on the cake.

With the boundary change, Short said the law required a new incorporation petition to be filed. After mulling it over, the commission, in a rare moment of accord with its county attorney, agreed.

That meant Stillman, Nelson and Topham had to go out and get all the signatures again.

To further complicate things, resident Delpha Baird had filed a township petition for, basically, the whole unincorporated area east of State Street. A township petition took precedence over an incorporation petition, so in addition to gathering incorporation petition signatures, Stillman and her fellows had to gather signatures of over 50 percent of residents in each voting precinct to opt out of the township.

"That was an incredible summer," Stillman said.

More legal wrangling

After weeks of work, the tired incorporation proponents presented their opt-out petition to the County Commission on July 31, 1996 - but again, Short refused to cooperate. He denied certification of the petition, due to what he perceived as problems with voting precincts located only partially within the proposed incorporation boundaries.

This time the County Commission disagreed with Short - vehemently. Marshall characterized Short's position as "bizarre."

"It was a huge tug of war," Stillman said. "We got caught between the power struggle of Doug Short and the commission. There was no standard - wherever they put the bar, we had to reach it."

In the meantime, a lawsuit was pending regarding the township election. The election was held Aug. 6, but a lower court judge later interpreted the law as requiring a supermajority of voters to create the township, dooming the election to failure.

After the chaos of the previous year, with incorporation proponents working directly with House Speaker Mel Brown, the Legislature cleaned up the incorporation and township law in the 1997 legislative session, greasing the rails for the current petition.

By all accounts, this one will likely sail through the legal requirements, finally getting the thing to election. The feasibility study itself states that "the study found no reason why the incorporation proposal should not proceed."

"This thing has been all-consuming," Stillman said. "If we ever incorporate, I won't know what to do with myself, I'll be so bored."