Utah Supreme Court strikes down law curbing land-use initiative campaigns

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No matter the dispute - whether about pigs in Kanosh, a power plant near Sigurd or a posh resort outside Beaver - a recent state law shut the door to Utah residents seeking to settle those spats at the ballot box.

On Friday, the Utah Supreme Court flung that door wide open again.

A unanimous seven-page ruling tossed out SB53 as unconstitutional and empowered Utahns to take on land-use decisions through the time-honored practice of gathering enough signatures to force a public vote.

The issue came to a head when some die-hard Sevier County residents launched a grass-roots push so voters could weigh in on a proposed coal-fired power plant near Sigurd.

"When we started out in February 2008, we believed we were doing a countywide right to vote," Sevier County resident Elaine Bonavita said Friday. "We now can say we played a part in restoring the right to vote to all Utahns across the state."

SB53, sponsored by Sen. Brent Goodfellow, D-West Valley City, barred voters from launching initiatives dealing with land-use ordinances. The bill breezed through the 2008 Legislature, got signed by the governor and took effect in May.

Bonavita led a successful effort to get the 299-acre coal-fired power plant on next month's ballot. However, attorneys for Sevier Power Co. pointed to SB53 and argued that Proposition 1 should be removed. A 6th District judge agreed.

Early last week, Utah's high court ordered the measure back on the ballot and, on Friday, issued its full opinion.

"This direct prohibition of the subject of an initiative brought otherwise within the conditions, manner and time restrictions imposed by law is beyond the power of the Legislature to enact," Justice Michael Wilkins wrote.

With that, the court upheld the people's power to initiate legislation on any subject, including land use.

In March, land-use attorney Jeff Owens called SB53 a loss for Utahns.

He ultimately argued Sevier County's right-to-vote case before the high court.

"They let me gravy-train my way to a Supreme Court win," Owens said, crediting the grass-roots residents for "doing the hard work."

SB53's reversal took Goodfellow by surprise.

"It was never my intent to take away the power of the people to petition their government," he said.

"My intent was to protect the integrity of master plans, private property and land-use documents."

Sevier Power's co-owner, Bruce Taylor, hoped for a different decision.

His efforts to get the required approvals for a proposed $600 million facility have spanned eight years.

Farther south, Beaver County resident Margaret Wellman, who took part in the fight against the exclusive but embattled Mount Holly ski-golf resort, applauded the ruling.

"It affects the whole state," she said, "so we're happy for everybody who does not want to see unlimited, big development."

Kanosh resident Steve Maxfield, a Millard County Commission candidate, also rejoiced.

Maxfield has pushed for a referendum on his town's new land-use document that bars residents from owning pigs.

"Kanosh is a great town that has been around for over 150 years," Maxfield said. "We've chosen to be neighbors. If our neighbor wants to have a pig, that's OK."


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