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The City Journals

Origins of incorporation: the long and winding road to cityhood

Nov 27, 2019 07:44AM ● By Zak Sonntag

Tom Nelsen beams with pro-incorporation placards. (Photo courtesy of Tom Nelsen)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

Origins of incorporation

An atmosphere of reflection has imbued Holladay in its 20th year. The September birthday fete sparked a renewed fascination with the city’s beginnings and sent the community clamoring for knowledge of its past, as we saw in October when the annual Holladay History Night gathered its largest turnout ever — over 300 people and standing room only.

But as we look back, we see that the origins of incorporation are rooted in a movement beginning long before the year 1999, and it was made possible by the unification of two separate but similar communities — Holladay-Cottonwood. The truth is that cityhood was never a shoo-in. In fact, it might have come about much later, if at all, were it not for the devoted efforts of small but impassioned groups of organizers who, against the odds, successfully challenged the galling power of Salt Lake County Commission’s “Three Kings.” 

“Becoming a city is not easy. It’s very hard. But it was necessary if we wanted to have a real say over the future of our community,” said Eunice Black, one of the five original signatories on the 1999 petition to incorporate what was initially called Holladay-Cottonwood. “We knew the only way to maintain our vision for the community was to move power away from the county and put decisions in the hands of people who actually live here and are vested in deeper ways.”

Black, whose father built a home in Holladay in 1921, articulates a sentiment that dates back much further. Some argue the contentious relationship with the county began when they approved the Cottonwood Mall, which replaced an open-space park that encompassed an area known as Brinton’s Pasture, where salamanders and pollywogs and frogs flourished in the crisscrossing streams.

A group named Cottonwood Incorporated purchased a foot-wide strip of land bordering the mall site to prevent further expansion. In many ways, that bordering strip stands as a symbol for myriad incorporation efforts that came after, driven by a desire to contain the county’s development-centric intentions.

Preserving Paradise

The first official incorporation vote came in 1985, when a group called Neighbors for Holladay City mounted the campaign “Preserving Paradise” with the hope of creating a city called the Cottonwoods. The campaign was spurred on after Salt Lake County green-lighted the Guarantee Savings and Loan Building of Harrisburg Arkansas, a six-story office complex on 4800 South, whose size and aesthetic design was repudiated by locals who called it “an oversized and ill-conceived imposition on the landscape,” according to campaign literature. (The building was later torn down and eventually replaced by the Holladay fire station.)  

Residents were nervous the building would exacerbate traffic along arterial roads. Neighbors also argued that developers and county officials had similar designs elsewhere, including the Old Mill Valley, which would be “submerged in concrete.”

But when the ballots were cast on Sept. 3, 1985, the effort failed.

“The opposition defeated us with scare tactics, paid for by a lot of outside money coming from the manufacturing lobby, because they knew we’d shut down their gravel pits and cement plants,” said Tom Nelsen, board member of Neighbors and life-time Holladay resident. The opposition campaign was headed by Randi Horiuchi, who would later serve as a county council member. “They manipulated people into thinking the new city would raise their taxes.”

Beat but not defeated, organizers never lost sight of a self-determined community, and worked behind the scenes for almost a decade before broaching another attempt to assert themselves as a city.

Caught in the courts

In 1993, organizers geared up again. They gathered petition signatures and contracted a feasibility study, pursuant to state law, which entitled the effort to a vote. However, this time the vote was stymied by a decisive clause in the last section of the state law governing incorporations, which said: “Notwithstanding the above, the county will call for an election,” meaning the election couldn’t move to a vote until the county said it could. Unsurprisingly, the county did not hold a vote. So Nelsen took the community’s case to the court.

Initially, the lower courts sided with Nelsen and said the county must hold a vote. However, politics got in the way. At this same time, the community of Magna was attempting to incorporate, and its aggressive boundary proposal lassoed Kennecott Copper Mine, a massive tax base, which made county officials fearful that few rules existed to prevent communities from absconding with all their major revenue sources. So the county refused to comply with the lower court’s ruling and appealed Nelsen’s suit to the Utah Supreme Court. 

“At the high court, we didn’t exactly win but we didn’t exactly lose. Instead the court punted, referring the incorporation law back to the legislature to ‘clarify,’” Nelsen said. 

The result was the “township law,” which set a clear framework for aspiring cities. But by now the battle had bled Holladay’s incorporation coffers and sent organizers back to the drawing board. And now that the playing field had changed, new players attempted to conscript the Holladay and Cottonwood communities into a city whose immense size stood in contrast to the vision of locals.  

Too big to win

In 1995, state senator Delphi Baird constructed a proposal that would see Holladay subsumed into a much larger city along with other communities to create expansive entity colloquially called East Valley City.

“There would have been hundreds of thousands of people in it. From State Street to the mountains, and all the way down to Sandy. Those of us who were involved with incorporation efforts were immediately upset with it,” said Barry Topham, who worked on “Preserving Paradise” and also served on the Cottonwood Community Council. “It had the advantage of local control, but it also meant that a small community like Holladay might get steamed-rolled. We might only have one representative on an eight-member township commission.”

Topham led the effort to stop the Baird proposal. “We had to get 3/5ths of all the assessed value property owners to sign against it. I was the guy that did that. It took hundreds of hours, but we wouldn’t be the City of Holladay today if we hadn’t stopped it.”

Nelsen said the “Baird attempt failed miserably, because it was the opposite of what we wanted. We didn’t want to be swallowed up by a big entity that wouldn’t pay attention to us because that was already our status.” 

Fourth time’s a charm

Seventeen years after the first official attempt, organizers returned to make one last effort. This time they were ready for all the obstacles.

“We learned from the earlier mistakes. We knew what happened and why they failed, so we had a sense of the challenges. But we still knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Eunice Black, 1999 signatory and chair of District 1.

David Black, husband of Eunice Black, served on the Holladay-Cottonwood Community Council, and he explained that the issues that drove the 1999 campaign were the same as they’d always been. 

“The county wanted Holladay to become a second downtown, with much more density, but that’s not what the community wanted. The problem was our community council didn’t have the power to stop them. We were a non-binding body. We could make a recommendation but we were just a sounding board. We had no legal authority. So if the county wanted a development but we didn’t, the county got what it wanted,” David Black said.

David continued: “The thing about the county is if you wanted anything done, you’d have to get on the agenda, take a day off work to make it to the county offices, then wait around all day and they still might not get around to hearing you, and if they did they were unlikely to side with you. It was slow and frustrating.”

As the Blacks began to press the issue of becoming a city, they discovered the anti-incorporation opposition had revamped their old tactics. “They’d convinced people it was going to add another layer of government and add another round of taxes. But that just wasn’t true,” said Eunice Black. “Our initial feasibility study showed that we were likely going to pay less in taxes once we incorporated.”

The opposition had shown itself adept at controlling the narrative, but Eunice and other grassroots organizers implemented a full-press education campaign.

“It’s about bringing the government functions closer to home. A city’s job is different than a county’s job, and a city can handle the needs of the community so much more efficiently. Once people started to understand these roles and functions, and we showed them the feasibility study, they were totally on board,” Eunice said.

County in decline

Salt Lake County was not excited about what the Blacks were doing. Holladay’s incorporation meant a diminished tax base for the county at a time when it was beset by financial woes. In 1998, the county settled a lawsuit with utility companies that required it to refund taxes collected on over-valued land, leaving it with a $2.1 million budget shortfall.

The budgets challenges were worsened by the fact that the number of unincorporated (fully taxable) households were in quick decline. Between 1994 and 1998, the number of unincorporated households fell by 17%, lost to annexations by the City of Midvale and to the newly formed City of Taylorsville.

Also, it was around this time that the county began discussions about its own restructuring. Many were calling for the elimination of a three-member county commission form of government in favor of a multimember, mayor-council form of government, which entailed significant additional administrative costs. 

The county, in other words, was less than thrilled about losing taxable households.

Victory at hand

But for many this only seemed to solidify the logic of incorporation. In 1998, Deseret News columnist Jay Evensen urged unincorporated areas to join cities because “the county will strain harder and harder to act as a city to far flung unincorporated neighborhoods, like a boatman trying to keep one foot on the dock and the other in a boat drifting without a tether.”

Evensen made a point that grassroots organizers like Eunice and David Black had been making all along. For them, it was about putting the point into action.

“I would get my kids off to school by 9 a.m., and I was out knocking doors by 9:30,” Eunice Black said. “I walked. I drove. I spent all day talking with the community and didn’t come back until dinnertime. It was all about educating. We helped people understand where we came from and where we’re going and what, when you get down to it, the benefits of becoming a city are. And they got it, because the benefits were huge. And the funny thing is that some of the neighborhoods north of 4500 South had total apathy — no interest in joining whatsoever. But afterward, some of them came to me and said, ‘Why didn’t you bring us with you?’”

On May 4, 1999, the citizenry voted by over 83% to approve incorporation. The City of Holladay-Cottonwood was officially recognized on Nov. 30, 1999. The following year the name was shortened to City of Holladay.