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The City Journals

Sparks fly again at SSL City Council meeting over code revision

Nov 04, 2019 03:41PM ● By Bill Hardesty

South Salt Lake City Council works on major revisions of the city’s building code. (Bill Hardesty/City Journals)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

Another rock was added to the rocky relationship between the South Salt Lake City Council and the city’s staff on Oct. 9. The meeting got heated when Alex White, division manager for community development and Councilmember Shane Siwik exchanged words.

The issue at hand was a recommendation to the council to update the zoning map, amend Chapter 3.11 and 9.24 and repeal and replace Titles 5, 15, and 17 of the city code. 

After much discussion, White's frustration spilled out.

"We have had four work meetings and not one of you have brought anything forward to talk about. That is very frustrating when you give staff no direction, you have no input, you refuse to meet in small group meetings, and then you listen to developers and you don't listen to the staff working for you. That is extremely inappropriate," White said.

At which point, Siwik shot back, "Alex, don’t tell this council what is appropriate and what is not. That is our job."

White jumped in saying, "I am not done. This ordinance is holding up projects. I have 25 applications backlogged that we cannot process because of conflicts in the code. This ordinance does not fix our policy issues."

Siwik and White continued to spar until Siwik said, "We respond to the community. In the earlier meeting, the community wasn't there, but they are here now. We have an obligation to go down a deeper dive."

At this point, other council members stepped in trying find the next step forward. The step they found was to move it to the Nov. 13 work and regular meeting.

“It is frustrating when my staff isn’t heard and the council doesn’t explain the why,” Mayor Cherie Wood said. 

Background

During the most recent budget discussion, Community Development requested funds to hire outside help to "remove errant and conflicting provisions, reorganize regulations, codify engineering standards, codify standard road profiles, coordinate local land use regulations with recent amendments to the state alcohol laws, consolidate the land use matrices, codify plain language and conform with recent mandates in State law." (Stated in the City Council agenda.)

The funds were cut. Since the need for a cleanup was causing issues in quickly processing development applications, city staff decided to tackle at least the first phase. A small group from Community Development and the city attorney's office came together and "blew up the code" and put it back together.

The result was a 440-page document of the revised code. The document was presented to the Planning Commission on Aug. 1. Rather than having the commission read each page, White provided a multi-page overview. With little discussion, the commission passed the recommendation to the city council.

The recommendation was first presented to the council on Aug. 14 with the same overview presentation. However, the council was concerned about the details. They decided to move the business forward to allow time to read the document.

The business continued to be moved forward. In a Sept. 18 work meeting, Mark Kindred, councilmember at-large, stated his concern, "This is a major code change."

Siwik from District 5 wanted to see the changes presented in the typical manner by red lining the changes. Staff explained that the reorganization was so massive, the entire 440-page document would be red lined.

In the council meeting following, three developers from the same company spoke in opposition to the code changes.

"Passing this ordinance in its current form would have disastrous unintended consequences to the community of South Salt Lake for years to come," said John Prince, an SSL landowner.

The developers pointed out numerous code changes such as changing the required townhome width of 200 feet to match the high-density required width of 250 feet.

Is it a change or not a change?

"We didn't make any policy changes," White said on many occasions.

The council's own attorney, Doug Ahlstrom, agreed saying, "There is no policy changes ... the staff is not trying to sneak something by you."

But developers saw it differently.

This is how both views are correct. In the current city code both requirements are found. Therefore, there is nothing new in the code. However, to simplify the code, the two requirements were consolidated into one standard. When there was a conflict, the committee chooses the most logical or common standard. Therefore, it appears the requirement for townhomes changed. But the argument goes that since townhomes are high-density housing, it makes sense they should have the same requirement as all other forms of high-density housing.

The situation is like looking at the famous optical illusion picture of the young woman or old lady — what you see depends on what you perceive. The picture is the same, each person's perception is different.

Other notes from the Oct. 9 meeting include: 

Developers were back providing tables of the changes in the code.

"If this passed, my land will be worthless,” Prince declared.

Prince did say the city has promised to work with him and others when their project conflicts with the code, but he said, "But it is only a promise."

He went on to say that developers will likely need to hire a lawyer to develop in SSL and having so many issues to go through the planning commission could delay projects by four to six months. Other developers and landowners voiced similar concerns.

"I recommend passing the cleanup and making changes quickly," White said in response.

For example, the TOD (Transit Oriented Development) overlay district where the code is 20 years old.

"Passing legislation and trying to fix it later is bad government," Siwik said days later.

In the meeting, Ben Pender from District 1, shared the same opinion. "We have control now. Let's fix then pass it."

Hannah Vickery, deputy city attorney, reminded the council that staff works for them and can only work when the council provides a policy direction and that she hasn't heard any policy direction yet.

Ray deWolfe, councilmember at-large, joined in by saying, "We are nervous that we don't create a difficult experience or have developers shy away from developing in South Salt Lake. So, we need more reassurance from the city that we are doing the right thing in passing this ordinance." 

Conflict history

The nature of a strong mayor/city council city government tends to have more conflicts since the city council is the legislative branch and the mayor the executive branch. However, sharp comments between the council and staff aren’t unusual.

For example, during the protracted work on the Granite Townhomes and Granite Library, deWolfe said, "We need to trust the staff."

"Not in this matter," Kindred declared.

Another example is this past budget process. Staff member after staff member stood before the council explaining their department needs over a series of public meetings. At the end, they walked away frustrated as four councilmembers found money for first responders raises by slashing other department’s budgets.

“The conflicts have gotten worse over the past two years,” Wood said.