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Riverton Music owner Kevin Rindlisbacher now has an electronic sign advertising his Sandy store attached to a pole tall enough so drivers on Interstate 15 can see it as they pass at about 9500 South.

Thanks to a bureaucratic system, he says, it took a year and a half and thousands of dollars in legal fees to get it.

"In October 2015, I contacted the Sandy planning department about placing a pole sign in front of my Riverton Music location at 9491 S. 255 West," Rindlisbacher wrote in a narrative summarizing his frustration with the city. "I had reviewed several sign studies and wanted the smallest sign possible that would still be effective in communicating to cars traveling over 70 mph and across six lanes of traffic."

Based on his research, he realized having a sign large enough to be noticed would be out of compliance with Sandy's sign ordinance. So he applied for a variance.

That's when the fun began.

"After a few weeks of internal review, [the city staff] suggested I apply for a sign theme. I paid the fees, filled out the application and cut short a family vacation so I could be at the hearing. A week before the hearing, I was notified that the size of my property didn't qualify for a sign theme — even though it was the staff that sent me down this path."

So Rindlisbacher applied for the variance, although the staff had discouraged it, and, in May 2016, he received a hearing before the city's Board of Adjustments.

He presented evidence showing the topography of his site along I-15 and the studies indicating the necessary size and height. He pointed out inadequacies, in his view, of the existing sign ordinance. Despite notices sent to surrounding property owners, he was the only one who attended the hearing. Neighbors didn't seem to worry about it enough to show up and express a view.

Then, despite the city staff's opposition, he won. The board granted a variance. Rindlisbacher thought that was the end of it.

But it was just beginning.

Thirty days after the hearing, Sandy notified him that it was appealing its own board's decision.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "The appeal would mean I would have to hire an attorney and months of delay. I sent an email to every City Council person asking them to reconsider the appeal. No reply. I spoke with Mayor Tom Dolan on the phone, and he told me that the Board of Adjustments had gone against the staff's recommendation and they had to 'rein in a runaway board.' "

The hearing took place in 3rd District Court in November 2016. City officials had to hire an outside lawyer to represent them "since they were both the plaintiff and the defendant," Rindlisbacher said. "I had to hire my own attorney."

A month later, the judge ruled that the Board of Adjustments acted reasonably and denied the appeal. The only remaining avenue for the city was the Utah Supreme Court, and "the city made me wait a few weeks longer before notifying me that they weren't going to appeal. Nineteen months after my original attempt to get a variance and over $10,000 in legal fees later, I have my sign."

Sandy spokeswoman Nicole Martin justified the city's actions and disputed the notion the city was suing itself. The city ensures there is neutrality on the board when a property owner appeals, she said, and the board acted independently — as it should. But in this case, the city staff believed the panel erred because it didn't apply the criteria for a variance as laid down by state law. The city, she said, argued it had to appeal to maintain the integrity of the statute governing such variances.

When the judge upheld the board's decision, the city considered appealing to the state's high court, but if it lost at that level, it could set a precedent with statewide implications and damage cities' abilities to govern their own jurisdictions.

"We didn't want to win a battle," Martin said, "and lose the war."

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