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Preservationists awarded victory in Vine Street historic buildings fight

May 14, 2018 04:42PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Judge Keith A. Kelly has set aside Murray City’s approval for destruction of historic Vine Street buildings. (Photo James Delliskave)

By Shaun Delliskave|[email protected]

Murray City and developers were handed a defeat regarding the demolition of the historic Murray 1st Ward, Carnegie Library, and Jones Court buildings. Judge Keith A. Kelly of the 3rd District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Kathleen Stanford, who argued that the certificate of appropriateness granted by the Murray City Planning Commission, which would eventually result in the demolition of the buildings, was granted arbitrarily and inappropriately.

In his Stanford vs. Murray City conclusion, Kelly asserted, “Murray City and its Planning Commission acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and illegally, in approving the destruction of the Historic Buildings. Based upon this, the Court grants the Petition for Review and sets aside the City’s approval for destruction of the Historic Buildings.”

“The judge was simply calling on Murray City to follow its own code and the desires of its citizens to protect these buildings,” said Stanford. While the case is pending a decision to appeal, Murray City has declined to comment. Co-defendant JR Miller/Dakota Pacific has not returned Murray City Journal’s email request for comment.

In the formation of the Murray City Center District (MCCD), Murray City Code expressly identifies certain properties that “are deemed historically significant and will be preserved.” The law specifically designates the former Mount Vernon School properties as included in the MCCD and therefore applicable to historic preservation.

This decision may have a broader impact on other communities and the development of historic properties. Dr. David Amott, preservation program director for Preservation Utah noted, “We believe that… this judgment conveys to developers, local officials and administrators and the public that historic preservation process requires significant research and factual proof when community landmarks are proposed for demolition.”

The historic buildings located at 184 Vine Street are listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places within the Murray Downtown Residential Historic District. The largest building is the 1907 Gothic-style church, commonly referred to as the Murray 1st Ward Building. Built by the LDS Church, the building was enlarged in 1928. The Carnegie Library was built in 1915 and enlarged in the 1970s. The oldest structures in the complex include the 1905 Colonial Dutch Revival Jones Court Duplexes and the 1906 Vine Street Duplex.

The LDS Church sold its chapel to Mount Vernon Academy in the 1970s, who then transformed it into a private school. The school later acquired the surrounding properties, including the library from the city in the 1990s, incorporating them into a single complex.

Mount Vernon vacated the property when it relocated to its current home at 240 East 5600 South. The property has since been put up for sale, but the buildings, particularly the old church, have structural and zoning issues. The church’s iconic tower is off-limits for safety reasons, and some buildings are constructed with unreinforced adobe brick.

A buyer, Dakota Pacific, approached the owner with an offer in 2016 and applied to the city’s planning commission to turn the property into an assisted living center. Dakota Pacific applied for a certificate of appropriateness, expressly stating its plans to demolish the historic buildings.

The planning commission’s first hearing on the plan took place on May 4, 2017. The attendance at that planning meeting attracted significant attention, and some commissioners expressed their desire to preserve the buildings. Commissioner Scot Woodbury stated in the meeting, “I would love to see something done with it that would preserve it, but it just doesn’t seem to be an option.” The Murray City History Advisory Board made recommendations against demolition. The commission also had to consider the private property ownership rights.

Independent of the historical arguments, the planning commission also had to decide if an assisted living center was appropriate for the MCCD.

Murray code allows for historically significant buildings to be demolished if the request to the planning commission meets criteria spelled out in the Discretionary Exception Analysis. In the end, the planning commission approved the application on May 18, 2017, but not without controversy. The application’s approval triggered grassroots activism that organized under the name of Preserve Murray.

Preserve Murray leader Janice Strobell organized her group to comment at city council meetings and encourage councilmembers to vote against the planning commission’s decision. Independent of Preserve Murray, Stanford also organized resistance to the demolition.

They brought in independent consultants to the city council to testify that preservation was not only possible but economically feasible. The city council, however, unanimously approved the development. Councilman Jim Brass said at the June 20 meeting, “This is in my district and it is difficult. It is also a private property issue. This property was for sale for quite a long time and a development group is under contract to purchase it. It’s hard for government; and I don’t think people would want the government deeply involved in property issues.”

Stanford filed an appeal with Murray Community and Economic Development (MCED) Hearing Officer Jared Hall. As part of her appeal, Stanford contended Dakota Pacific failed to provide documents supporting the claims it made in its application. Dakota Pacific’s attorneys contend there was enough evidence submitted to the planning commission to show historic preservation wasn’t feasible. In what was likely the most highly attended MCED hearing ever, Hall ruled in favor of Dakota Pacific.

Immediately after the MCED hearing, Stanford filed a case against Murray City in 3rd District Court. Dakota Properties/JR Miller asked to also be a defendant in the case. Stanford’s attorney argued that the planning commission violated city code by granting a certificate of appropriateness.

The city submitted a motion to dismiss the case, but on January 22, 2018, the motion was denied by Judge Keith Kelly and the case went to trial on March 19. On April 27, Kelly ruled against the city, stating the city’s planning commission failed to follow city code and faulted the commission in three areas.

In his decision, Kelly first found that the planning commission did not follow the code and failed to provide initial analysis to determine if the property met the criteria to be demolished. Second, the judge found the commission’s decision to approve the certificate of appropriateness was illegal because it misinterpreted the Discretionary Exception Analysis as a mandatory exception analysis. In sum, the information that the commission was presented was not substantive enough to make a decision. Lastly, the planning commission acted illegally, per city code, by approving the developer’s agreement before it was approved by the city council.

In a written statement, Preserve Murray said that it “…commends Kathleen’s (Stanford) tireless work, continuing to raise her voice amidst opposition. Because of Kathleen's efforts, we now have a clearer definition of Murray City's process for the protection of our designated historic buildings.”

“These buildings are truly treasures. The Murray 1st Ward has been called the most significant historic building left in Murray,” commented Stanford.

In looking to the future, Stanford remarked, “We are raising money to buy these buildings and repurpose them to be a shining part of the downtown revitalization. We hope to give everyone an opportunity to be a part of this great undertaking if they want. Stay tuned.”