Two South Jordan residents have filed a civil complaint contending the city has wrongfully restricted public access to a community park while allowing cows to graze on the property.
Drew Chamberlain and Brent Foutz filed the action in 3rd District Court Wednesday, saying the city's use of the 26-acre park is contrary to restrictions placed on a deed from the State Division of Parks and Recreation that turned the park property over to South Jordan in 1983.Chamberlain and Foutz are seeking $1.2 million in actual and punitive damages that would be earmarked as a donation to the Trust for Public Lands, to be used specifically for land conservation efforts within South Jordan.
The park is located west of the Jordan River and south of 10600 South and is surrounded by land purchased by developer Gerald Anderson for the construction of the RiverPark office center.
City officials have asked the state parks board whether the park property can be traded for an adjoining and larger piece of property owned by Anderson to avoid having the office complex encircle the park. The state board has postponed action on the matter pending further information.
In addition to asking for $31,000 for damages to the river bottom's wetlands, the complaint is asking $1.69 million in punitive damages.
Ironically, the $1.2 million total mirrors the amount being sought by Anderson in a suit filed against a group of South Jordan residents who call themselves SOS (an acronym for Save Open Space), which has vigorously opposed the River-Park project.
Foutz, a member of SOS, said Wednesday he cannot understand why the city has padlocked the park property to limit public use but permits cows to graze on the land.
"Grazing of cattle is not a public recreation use," he said, noting the deed that turned the land over to the city specifies it was conveyed "for public recreational purposes."
South Jordan City Manager Gary Chandler said Thursday he has not seen a copy of the complaint and cannot comment.
However, he said he is gathering additional information on the pasturing of the cows.
"I'm sure that whoever has cows there had asked that they be put there to graze down the weeds in the park," Chandler said. "It's certainly only intended to be a temporary situation."
The city manager noted the land "is not an approved park at this point, so we don't have an approved policy for its use.
"People have climbed over the fence, but I don't recall anyone having requested access to use it," he added. At this point, "It is land that has been set aside for a future park."
Chandler also stressed that the city has not made a decision about trading the park property but was only exploring the possibilities of such a move with the park board.
Included in the suit is an affidavit from South Jordan resident Todd Christensen, who maintains the livestock grazing "has caused river bank erosion and the destruction of nesting sites for great blue herons and Canada geese."
Chamberlain said he learned Thursday that the city is moving quickly to get the cows off the property after learning the complaint had been filed.
"The Boy Scouts planted some willow trees down there, but a city worker says the trees have been eaten up," he said. "The cows trample the reeds on the river bank and the nesting grounds for migratory birds - and the cow pies stay for years.
"I think what is being done down there is criminal," said Chamberlain. "You can't restore a fragile ecosystem like that without a great deal of time and expense. How can the city allow people to run cattle on our park?"
Chandler indicated he's frustrated by what appears to be the efforts of a small group to hamper the city's efforts on behalf of its residents.
"South Jordan is lucky to have a great mayor and city council that have spent countless hours working on hundreds of issues for the benefit of the city," he said, "and their only interest is what is best for the city.
"Yet we have one small citizens' group that continually files silly and frivolous lawsuits against the city that causes their friends and neighbors to waste many thousands of dollars in legal expenditures," Chandler added.
Ironically, the complaint inadvertently was assigned to 3rd District Judge Michael Hutchings, who has a financial interest in the RiverPark project and is one of the parties named in the civil action.
Hutchings, who has indicated he plans to step down from the bench soon to pursue other interests, will recuse himself from the complaint immediately.