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The City Journals

West Valley City’s biggest stories of 2018

Dec 17, 2018 04:29PM ● By Travis Barton

City Manager Wayne Pyle, seen here at the grand opening of fire station 76, signed a five-year contract in May to keep him with West Valley City. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Whether it was maintaining city leadership, dealing with serious tragedy, or two momentous decisions on pieces of land, West Valley City employees and residents saw significant impact in 2018. 

Here are five of the biggest stories from 2018. 

Jill Robinson

Possibly nothing rocked the West Valley community more this year than the untimely death of Jill Robinson, a West Valley City code enforcement officer. 

Killed in the line of duty on Aug. 9, Robinson was remembered by her family and coworkers during her Aug. 17 funeral at the Maverik Center. 

Her brother, Jaren Robinson, recounted the time Jill donated bone marrow when he got leukemia. She took injections that made her sick to create more stem cells. Doctors wanted 10 million stem cells, so she hooked to a machine that extracted stem cells and then give blood back to her. Those 10 million cells were inserted by IV into his body where they began to regrow and reproduce.

“Her DNA is now my DNA,” Jaren said. 

Her kids remembered her hugs and how they’ll do the same to their kids. 

“[Her hugs] were indescribable and powerful…I could feel that my happiness meant the world to her and she would do anything for me,” said Jessica Knorr, the oldest of Jill’s four children. 

Jill raised her four kids almost exclusively as a single mom. She would hand make their Halloween costumes. She would teach them how to fish (putting Starburst or cheese on hooks and scream “here fishy, fishy, fishy”). She would sneak candy to eat in the car with her sister Julie Robinson while driving with the kids. 

She would attend every swim meet, sports game, play or graduation. She graduated herself from the police academy at 38, frequently working more than one job. 

“She showed us nothing was impossible,” said Katie Merrill, Jill’s second oldest daughter. “We are who we are today because of her.”

Merrill said Jill was proud to be a code enforcement officer. Her boss with West Valley City, Layne Morris, said she was an example of focus. 

“She was looked up to and respected by everyone,” he said. 

Fire Department

It was a big year for Fire Chief John Evans and the West Valley City Fire Department. 

West Valley sent firefighters to California, received a grant to hire 15 more firefighters, had two fire stations open and started a hands-only CPR campaign.

Starting in February, free hands-only CPR classes have been available on a monthly basis, teaching residents how to do continuous chest compressions without mouth-to-mouth. 

“Some CPR is better than no CPR. We’re just trying to remove the fear,” said Brian Larson, battalion chief for the fire department, back when they kicked off the campaign. 

Maybe most important though, was ensuring the far-flung corners of the city had proper safety coverage. And that’s just what happened when fire station 76 officially opened in June at 5372 South Upper Ridge Road with a ceremonial “hose cutting.”

“This station means the world to me,” said nearby resident Renee Layton at the fire station’s open house. “Because now we’re talking a handful of minutes (response time), that’s so much better and it’ll help our part of the city feel more connected.” 

The station’s proximity to the southwest corner shaves off critical seconds when responding to calls. “A couple of minutes can make a huge difference,” said Mayor Ron Bigelow. “So having this station here is a major step forward for the city. We can now serve the residents of this part of our fair city in a more rapid and efficient way.”

Later that fall, station 72 would reopen after being completely rebuilt. 

“Station 72 is the backbone of the West Valley City Fire Department and the heaviest-used station in the city. For years, we’ve been looking for ways to update and remodel the existing building on this lot. After a lot of discussion, we just dropped all the plans to remodel and did a complete rebuild,” City Manager Wayne Pyle said. 

The station is twice as tall as the old one, which means that taller fire trucks can fit in the garage. It leaves room for new additions and new technologies so that it can stay relevant.

In addition to the higher ceilings in the garage, two more aspects of the new station were highlighted. The first is accommodations for female firefighters. John Fox, battalion chief and firefighter since 1987 started at this station. “When this was first built, there were no separate facilities for women at all. It was a man’s station,” Fox said. The new station remedies that with women’s restrooms, changing facilities and separate sleeping quarters.

Both stations feature gear laundry rooms where the firefighters can wash off the toxins and poisonous chemicals after responding to emergencies. 

But fire wasn’t the only public safety department to have major events in 2018.

Police Department

Colleen Jacobs was officially named West Valley City’s police chief in 2018, having served as interim chief for six months. 

“This is such an honor and a privilege for me to be here,” Jacobs said at the time. “I am very excited to lead this organization into the future.”

Jacobs has been with the department her entire career working in patrol, investigations, narcotics, grants, internal affairs and as deputy chief.

City Manager Wayne Pyle said he wanted someone for the long term when making this appointment. He even went on a ride-a-long with her in 1998. 

“I remember being impressed even back then as to how brave an officer and how skilled and confident she was, and so I'm very excited and happy to have her in this position,” he said at the time.

A few months after her official appointment, the department began the first of its two citizen academies. Residents are invited to participate learning tactics, protocols and reenact scenarios. 

October kicked off with a campaign from the police department: breast cancer. 

After Nicole Dunaway, a city clerk, was diagnosed and went through initial treatments for breast cancer WVCPD decided to partake in the Pink Patch Project. Throughout the month of October, officers wore an official pink patch on their uniforms to support breast cancer research organizations and help initiate conversation among the community.

Dunaway said she could have caught the cancer sooner had she been on top of her mammogram appointments. 

“You know, I was so dumb not to go in — especially with my family history. But, I am really lucky that I caught it when I did,” Dunaway said in October. “Now I’m just fighting really hard to beat this.”  

The community was invited to purchase their own pink patch as well as West Valley City Police Pink Patch Project T-shirts. The campaign raised $4,500 and was donated to the Huntsman Cancer Foundation for the creation and improvement of cancer treatments, the relief of the suffering of cancer patients, and the providing of education about cancer risk, prevention and care. 

Two property decisions

West Valley City is almost completely built out with few open lands remaining — making them prime real estate. It also means redevelopment, on previous developed areas, is more likely to take place. 

Both of those scenarios took place in 2018 which left the city council with tough decisions, and an active community to match. 

The first came in April, when elected officials voted 4-3 to approve a seven-story Sage Valley Apartment complex at 4100 South 1770 West just off Redwood Road. It replaces the old Kmart site whose business license ended in February 2017. 

For four years, the city’s economic development team worked to revitalize the location. Staff searched for big box retailers such as Home Depot, Trader Joe’s or WinCo to replace the Kmart, but found no takers. Multiple retailers were found to either be downsizing bricks-and-mortar stores, and identified the location as too far in between other city centers within WVC.  

Some councilmembers opposed the project for that reason. Despite the quality of the project — developers at the time said they planned to pour $60 million — councilmembers felt it was the wrong location. 

“We need something nice to lift up this area,” Councilwoman Karen Lang said at the time. “I’m just not sure that the density is appropriate for that area, seeing that we don’t have the facilities in place to take care of that amount of people.” 

Other officials felt the project would revitalize the area. That by having a high-quality development, “we will get more people who are more committed to the city, we’ve seen it happen at Fairbourne Station,” Mayor Ron Bigelow said.

Many residents who live nearby opposed the development. They cited additional traffic, increased crime rates and overflow parking as reasons to oppose the complex — that is set to feature 430 apartments, 21 townhomes and 700 parking spaces, roughly 1.7 stalls per unit. 

“(Having) nothing (there) would be better than high-density housing,” said Laura Thackeray who lives near the property.

But city officials reported less police calls were made to the ICO apartments at Fairbourne Station than some neighborhoods. They also reported a transportation study that said commercial development would increase traffic 15 percent more than the incoming apartments. 

During a recent council study meeting in December, city officials said homeless camps had begun popping up on the vacant site with development beginning soon to drive them out. 

While one land was being redeveloped, a townhome project on an open 13-acre parcel of land was being unanimously denied by the city council. 

Garbett Homes proposal for 153 townhomes at 5332 West Highbury Parkway over the summer unintentionally started a campaign by the adjacent Highbury neighborhood. The mobilized network of residents petitioned both the planning commission and city council to deny the project well in advance. 

Neighbors cited parking and crime that would only increase with further density. They want to see the land developed, but with single-family homes. 

City leaders have identified higher-value homes as a priority to diversify housing within the city. It’s also meant to give residents who outgrow their smaller homes a way to stay in the city. 

The townhomes were sold as high, energy efficient buildings with solar panels included in every home. While residents liked the idea, they wanted to see it with homes rather than the higher density townhomes. 

Matt MacPherson, president of the Highbury neighborhood’s HOA, said at the time this problem was only the beginning. With the undeveloped land and apartments and townhomes nearby, he expects more battles to come. 

“This may be a fight we will fight, hopefully successfully, in the future,” MacPherson said. “And we may lose in the future, or we may find a great home builder that'll come in and build single-family homes, and maybe Garbett will be the one to do that. It's hard to say that this feels like a win because it really feels like it was phase one. We know for sure there is more to come.”

City manager renews contract

In what became one of the more divisive issues of 2018 for the council, was the contract of City Manager Wayne Pyle. 

With Pyle being courted by city officials in Springfield, Missouri for the same position —a city where he has extended family — the council voted 4-3 May 22 to offer Pyle a five-year contract. He accepted and signed the contract shortly thereafter.

“I’m very happy to be able to stay in the city where I’ve devoted the majority of my time and professional efforts as a city manager,” Pyle wrote at the time in an email to the West Valley Journal. “We have seen some amazing things come to pass in the city over the last 20 years, and there are many more great things happening right now. I expect that the next five years will see more of the same. I’m excited!”

In West Valley City’s form of government, the city manager acts as the CEO of the city running day-to-day operations. Paul Isaac, assistant city manager and director of human resources, said city staff was “elated” at the decision keep Pyle. 

A few elected officials felt the contract was too one-sided, giving Pyle too much leverage. They cited him not living in WVC, the length of the contract and possibly binding future councils to a city manager who might have different goals and visions. 

“But under these terms, they won’t have any say in the matter,” said Mayor Ron Bigelow prior to the vote. 

Isaac said Pyle didn’t have a contract before this, and the only difference from what the city manager already had as part of his employment, was a contract length. This was to give him peace of mind, Isaac said.

Councilman Steve Buhler was adamant in giving Pyle the contract, identifying various examples of Pyle’s good work. That included housing efforts, the zero sexually oriented businesses in the city and the awards that departments like police, finance and parks receive because of good governance.

“That is due to Mr. Pyle, due to his great staff that he has put together and the direction that he has given them as city manager,” Buhler said before voting. “In my mind, this is the easiest vote we'll have.”