Ivory Homes
FILE - Artist rendering of proposed Cottonwood Mall redevelopment plan. Holladay city officials say the citizen petition for a referendum that would put the controversial Cottonwood Mall development project up for a vote did not qualify for the ballot.

HOLLADAY — Holladay city officials say the citizen petition for a referendum that would put the controversial Cottonwood Mall development project up for a vote did not qualify for the ballot.

But city officials have also decided to schedule a special election for the issue, just in case the eligibility of the referendum is challenged.

"This is a complex issue," Holladay Mayor Rob Dahle said in a news release Friday. "The city has an obligation to respect the referendum power of the people and a property owners' land use application rights. We are trying our best to balance both considerations."

The City Council voted unanimously Thursday to schedule a special election on Nov. 6 for possible referendum questions about the city's approval of plans for the site.

But it's not yet clear whether the referendum will show up on the ballot, depending on if resident groups successfully challenge the city's decision to reject the ballot initiative.

The city's decision comes after attorneys for Ivory Development, the developer for the 57-acre, high-density housing project, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the groups opposing the development, which alleged the groups made false representations about the project and gathered signatures outside polling locations, among other accusations.

Holladay residents earlier this month submitted their petition after gathering close to 8,000 signatures. Brett Stohlton, one of the organizers of Unite for Holladay, has said the developers were using "legal threats to stop our grass-roots effort because they know ultimately the taxpayers of Holladay don't want this project."

Attorneys also argued the issue wasn't eligible to be placed on the ballot anyway because the City Council didn't change any zoning laws to make way for the project.

City officials agreed with that analysis.

But Stohlton says his group intends to challenge it.

"We're confident the court will rule in our favor," Stohlton said. "We think broadly speaking this is another example of the city ignoring the voice of the people."

"We're pro-development, we want to see a great plan come forward," Stohlton continued. "What this is about is a technicality."

Essentially, Stohlton said, the city is "forcing us to take the city to court" by rejecting their referendum.

Because the citizen's petition sought to overturn the city's decision to approve amendments to the project's development plan and development agreement that were originally approved in 2008, Holladay officials have said the city's decisions to adjust previously approved plans are administrative and not legislative, so they can't be challenged by a referendum.

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State law generally limits city decisions that are eligible for referendum challenges to those that are legislative. But Holladay City Attorney Todd Godfrey acknowledged the city's decision could be challenged in court.

"While we believe these decisions are administrative in nature, we acknowledge that the sponsors of the petitions have a contrary opinion, and that may require a final determination by the courts," Godfrey said.

While city officials have decided to put the issue on the fall ballot, it's not yet clear what the ballot questions will look like, since the group's ballot initiative failed.