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The City Journals

Holladay Hotel wins site plan approval

Jan 13, 2020 02:36PM ● By Zak Sonntag

Private lane access determines the hotel site plan. (Zak Sonntag/City Journal)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

After a months-long process that entailed a contentious rezone, myriad traffic studies and a string of fatiguing negotiations, the planning commission in November approved the Holladay Hotel conceptual site plan, which will begin construction in 2020 at 6433 South Highland Drive.

The approved site plan departs starkly from the developer’s initial blueprint, which was designed to accommodate neighborhood safety concerns by including certain infrastructure enhancements, like a new traffic light at 6400 South. But that plan collapsed when the developer failed to reach an access agreement for an easement shared by the hotel and six other households. Therefore, the hotel property owner pressed forward with a design that remains unpopular with area residents who argue it promises to exacerbate traffic problems on a precarious stretch of roadway. 

“This will be a death trap on Highland Drive,” said Bonnie Felts, an outspoken critic of the project who lives in a home abutting the hotel development. “I invite all of you commissioners to come to my home and try to get out of our road. Then imagine what happens if you put a hotel right there?”

The preferred site plan was foiled by a lone holdout, retired army sergeant named Neil Lund, who declined to sign off on the access agreement.

“Neil is our problem child,” said Bonnie Felts, speaking with the City Journals. “He’s made this process very hard for a lot of us. But I don’t think we should villainize him because he raises a legitimate issue.”

The issue is compensation. 

“When they come in, we are going to lose property value. So we should be reimbursed. Who knows what the value is, but the principal is clear that we should be compensated,” Lund told the Journal back in October.

Yet compensation does not seem likely, so Lund’s refusal appears to guarantee the unpopular design. 

“Paying quite a bit of money to each resident isn’t economically feasible. It only makes sense if we don’t have access. But we’ve been granted access,” explained Steve Lovell, who represents the developer.

In order to work around the access agreement, the hotel developer called an audible and came up with a plan that didn’t require easement signatories, and residents are calling it a “bait-and-switch.”

“At what point do we allow one half of a household to determine what is safe for a whole community? Developers have rights, but what about our rights, where is the justice of one person jeopardizing our entire community?” asked Julie Sweet, a lane resident, speaking at the commission hearing.

Despite consensus about Plan A’s preferability, Lovell insists that Plan B remains safe and desirable. “Our traffic studies are beyond reproach. This has been vetted for several months. UDOT would not have granted us the access permit if we hadn’t met their standards. We’ve met all the requirements that have been outlined by the ordinance,” Lovell told the commission.

Still, all neighbors who spoke at the hearing resolutely bemoan the plan’s wisdom.

“UDOT is not the best traffic expert here. I am the expert. I’ve been going up and down that lane for 25 years. And I know it is going to put your family in jeopardy going along Highland Drive,” Sweet said.

Commissioners themselves expressed ambivalence about site plan B, and admitted a preference for the initial design. However, pursuant to the city ordinance, commissioners felt compelled to approve the project. 

“Everyone who has anything to do with this has said that site plan A is the way to go. But the developers have found themselves in a corner. And what we have in front of us now is a complete application that meets the requirements of the code and checks all the boxes. I wish I had more discretion,” said Jim Carter, a planning commissioner from District 5 where the project resides.

Commissioner Alyssa Lloyd said, “Plan A is 100 times better. But given our parameters, our hands are tied. I don’t see that we can deny it.”

Dan Gibbons, a district resident and councilmember elect, didn’t accept the commission’s logic. “I disagree with anyone that says your hands are tied. Your hands are not tied because of UDOT. You have the discretion to say we disagree,” Gibbons said.

Commissioners broached the topic of eminent domain, a legal instrument that would allow the city to override Lund and grant the access agreement. 

“The city is exploring all of its options to get the development back to site plan A,” said Planning Commission Chairwoman Marianne Ricks. The prospect of more aggressive city involvement was welcomed by many lane residents.

“Don’t move forward until you’ve explored every inch of eminent domain,” said Camille Andersen, a lane resident. “We can’t push a bad and very unsafe plan through just because of one person whose sanity I question.”

“I would like to put immense pressure on city council to pursue other options,” said Planning Commissioner Allyssa Lloyd. “I have faith.”

Yet, as the developer’s timeline races forward, a return to Plan A looks increasingly unlikely, as city officials have shown no initiative to strong-arm the holdout.

“The council has never used any form of eminent domain in our city’s history, and it’s unlikely to begin here. It’s a hard avenue to follow. I know the idea has been floated by the commission, but the council so far has not taken it up and I don’t believe anyone thinks it’s a viable option,” said outgoing Councilmember Steven Gunn.

With three new council members joining the city this month, the appetite for assertiveness could change, but based on the positions of remaining leadership that appears improbable because a city-led lawsuit against Lund is thought to have insufficient legal grounding and scant promise to succeed.

“Nobody anticipated that the plan would be held up, by one resident, but UDOT has come in and said the current access is safe. And based on that it puts us in a tough spot because we can’t deny the application [based on safety concerns] if UDOT has said it’s safe. It’s a tough situation and very unfortunate,” said Mayor Rob Dahle, speaking over the phone with the Holladay Journal.