Will Salt Lake County jettison the Board of Adjustment?
Officials say board volunteers often don't have the legal training to deal with complex issues.
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Salt Lake County is considering replacing its volunteer Board of Adjustment with paid administrative law judges to resolve often complex land-use issues.

County Public Works Director Patrick Leary introduced the idea to the County Council at a mid-December meeting, kicking off an extensive review process. Over the next few months, the concept will be run by community councils representing areas of the unincorporated county, plus the individual planning commissions that rule on neighborhood rezoning and land-use applications.

Leary said the county has a five-member Board of Adjustment, but it currently has a vacancy that has been difficult to fill. (Only unincorporated-area residents can serve.)

Sometimes that makes it difficult for the board to assemble a quorum for meetings, which can cause delays irksome to developers and frustrating for county planners.

While Councilwoman Jani Iwamoto suggested the board could be shrunk to three members to decrease quorum problems, Leary said, "What's more important to us is having people with a legal background in land-use issues."

The Board of Adjustment's most prominent case in recent years involved Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort's application for a mountain coaster that would start partway up the lower face of Mount Superior, wind its way down the slope, cross the Little Cottonwood Canyon highway and end at the resort's base.

After being approved by the County Planning Commission, Snowbird's proposal was overturned by the Board of Adjustment.

Its ruling compelled the county to undertake an extensive, still-not-completed review of its Foothills and Canyons Overlay Zone (FCOZ) ordinance. The case, and other proposals to build in the sensitive environment of the canyons, also made it clear to county officials that they want to be on firm legal ground in deciding often contentious land-use issues.

Leary noted that a 2006 change to land-use laws expanded the type of decisions that can be appealed to the Board of Adjustment. But for volunteers on the board, "they often don't have the legal training to understand the implications. We're at greater risk for a misunderstanding."

While hiring an administrative law judge to resolve disputes is more expensive than leaving decisions to a volunteer board, Leary predicted the county would cut costs by reducing the number of times in which a disappointed applicant challenges an unfavorable decision in court.

"Fairness and consistency in rulings is good and will save the county money," agreed Council Chairman David Wilde, a Republican.

"That's exactly our argument," responded Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn, who will remain in that position as the county switches mayors Jan. 7, going from Peter Corroon to Ben McAdams. Both are Democrats.

"It's important to have citizens involved," she said, and they still will be on community councils and planning commissions. But on appeals, "this is a better process having [them] give input to a professional administrative law judge before it goes to court."

As currently envisioned, Leary said, the county would set up a pool of qualified local attorneys. They would be called as needed and paid a rate to be determined later.

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg