The city counted on creating an overwhelming environment to get what they wanted. We warned them. We told them that we would fight every step of the way,” an impassioned Jeff Salt told me during a recent phone interview. The topic of our conversation was one that most Salt Lake citizens forgot about long ago, though it still affects every Salt Lake resident: the battle over the Jordan River soccer complex, as it has come to be known, and the $15.3 million bond citizens passed to pay for it a decade ago.
The complex, proposed for a site along the Jordan River, remains unbuilt. The bonds, as of the writing of this story, have not been issued. And litigation against the city relating to the bonds continues as Jeff Salt and the Jordan River Restoration Network (JRRN), for which Salt acts as program director, attempt to take a legal appeal of their case against the city to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Background: In 2003, in the wake of Olympic enthusiasm, the city asked Salt Lake taxpayers to foot the bill for a new sports complex. The cost was estimated at $22.8 million. Few public references revealed a specific location. The size was “up to 25” soccer fields—big enough to attract national attention. By a narrow margin, the bond passed. Years passed without activity, partly because no one would cough up the additional $7 million needed. Then the project resurfaced with double the original pricetag and environmental concerns regarding the 160-acre open riparian field. A group of citizens moved to stop the bond in court, but Salt Lake City beat them to the punch.
Jump to 2011: Instead of using legislation to finalize the bond as is customary, the city went to the courts to pass it. They filed a suit under the Utah Bond Validation Act, in essence suing every single resident, taxpayer and property owner of Salt Lake City. Citizens were notified of their day in court via a small announcement run in the Intermountain Commercial Record, a little known publication for Salt Lake’s business and legal community. On the court date, around 100 savvy residents appeared to represent themselves, including members of the JRRN. When the ruling came out, all the justices except for one ruled against the residents and taxpayers. The bond was validated.
“Our primary argument is that the public’s right to due process has been violated,” says Salt, explaining the core argument of the appeal now trying to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “When they [circumvented the normal process by using the Utah Bond Validation Act], the city did not adequately publish public hearing notices.”
The argument making its way up in the courts is a far cry from the environmental and economic concerns that first grabbed the attention of Salt and JRRN. At this point, the court has ruled against Salt and the place JRRN was initially formed to protect has long ago disappeared under thousands of tons of graded soil. One wonders why Salt continues to dog the city when, on the environmental front, he seems to have already lost.
Salt doesn’t seem to have the same question. One way or another, he still wants the city to say they are sorry for serving special interests and commercial interests over the public interest. He is not alone.
Lucy Knorr, a paralegal and professional photographer, was one of the 100 or so citizens who showed up to the court hearing in 2010 and would like to see the case all the way through its next appeal, thought she has little hope for recovering the place along the Jordan that she many others once loved. “This was a test case and it shows me that something obviously needs to be fixed,” Knorr told me. “Citizens need to have a better voice and be given the opportunity to speak.”
Ray Wheeler is a writer, photographer and wilderness activist and, like Knorr, is another supporter of the appeal. He remains appalled by the city’s insistence on building the complex on a flood plain of the Great Salt Lake that, he says, went under water as recently as 1989. He is a co-signer of the Supreme Court challenge.
While he involved himself in the legal proceedings, Wheeler also keeps his attention on the Jordan River field. He remains convinced that the land along the river still has another chance at life. “The wetlands were covered with dirt and a reservoir dug out to hold irrigation water, but because that site was covered with non-native plants anyway the city has actually begun first stage of a native plant restoration effort,” Wheeler explained. “It would not be a big additional step to proceed with what conservationists have proposed to do at that site for a long time. We can still preserve the river corridor, the crown jewel of this city.”
“Yes, I have sympathy on the soccer field issue,” Karthik Nadesan, the lawyer filing JRRN’s case with the Supreme Court, told me during a phone interview. “But even more critical are the potential repercussions for citizens all over the country as a result of the Utah court’s ruling. This decision needs to be appealed and overturned.”
The Utah court’s decision shows incongruous interpretations of federal law. Utah’s ruling allows large groups of people, even whole cities, as in this case, to be notified of impending litigation against them simply by an ad in a paper. The State of Michigan, on the other hand, has ruled, according to Nadesan, that a news advertisement is not sufficient and that defendants must receive a mailer at their home.
This incongruity in interpretation between states gives the JRRN’s case a real chance at getting heard by the highest court in the nation, says Nadesan. “When there is a contradiction in legal interpretation that has different states making incompatible rulings, then the Supreme Court is likely to take interest in it.”
Justice Lee, the one dissenting judge on the Utah court panel, once served as clerk for the conservative Supreme Court Judge Thomas. The extensive 20-page dissenting opinion from Justice Lee has provided significant direction for Nadesan in building the case.
Not until this fall will we know if the U.S. Supreme Court will accept the appeal. Until then, the ruling of the Utah Supreme Court will be taken as the final word in the case. Art Raymond, spokesperson for Mayor Becker, wrote in an email that the city will be moving forward with the Complex, as was “the will of the voters who approved public financing for the facility in 2003,” despite changes in the project’s size and cost, and a markedly different economic environment.
However, if the case to our nation’s highest court makes the cut, a final conclusion for the soccer complex may still be years away.