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Arguing the entire approval process was underhanded and illegal, a conservation group is suing Salt Lake City to stop a planned $44-million sports complex before the first ball flies.

On Monday, the Jordan River Restoration Network unveiled its 3rd District Court lawsuit that seeks to overturn the City Council's August rezoning of 190 acres for 16 soccer fields near 2200 North along the Jordan River.

The plaintiffs, including former City Councilwoman Nancy Saxton, also are requesting a temporary restraining order to halt construction of the "half-baked" project.

"We have endured seven years of smoke and mirrors by Salt Lake City," says the group's Jeff Salt, insisting City Hall's approval has misled the public and is "clearly illegal" by not conforming to land-use plans. "They went beyond the law and made a political decision."

The group also alleges Mayor Ralph Becker's office has failed to be transparent by withholding records, which the group claims reveal an agreement between the city and Real Salt Lake for a future soccer academy and perhaps a 30-year lease.

City and RSL officials scoff at the accusation, saying there are "absolutely" no strings attached to RSL's $7.5 million gift that will help build the complex — now on target for completion next fall.

"We're very confident the process itself is legal and will be upheld by the courts," says David Everitt, Becker's chief of staff. "I don't know how much more transparent we can get, frankly."

In August, a 3rd District judge denied the river network's push for a temporary restraining order that would have canceled a public hearing and delayed the council's 6-1 vote.

In 2003, city voters approved a $15.3 million bond — along with a $7.5 million match later provided by RSL — to build 25 soccer fields and eight baseball diamonds. The project has been scaled back to 15 soccer fields — seven under lights — plus one championship field with seating for 2,000.

A restoration plan sets aside 23 acres on the river's west bank and 21 acres on the east bank as open space. Becker hopes the move will repair the riparian corridor, providing flood-plain protection and restoring wildlife habitat.

But Saxton, who argues "irreparable harm" will be done to the flood plain, says the city has not been forthcoming about the plans since 2003. She and fellow plaintiff Danny Potts say the 5,000 documents released by the city are rife with "duplication" and "misrepresentation."

A second river network suit, challenging the city's fees for additional public records, remains in 3rd District Court.

Salt and the other plaintiffs maintain the complex breaks state law by not conforming to either the city's general plan or Rose Park's small-area master plan. They also allege it violates county flood-plain standards. And they complain the deal was done behind closed doors while information released publicly was misleading.

Everitt points to months of discussions and hearings. And he notes it is nearly impossible to facilitate a records request that is not specific without charging the nominal fee allowed under state law.

Negotiations about a soccer academy have taken place and continue to occur, he says. "But there are no commitments whatsoever now to Real. To continue to allege that ... starts to get us into fantasy land."

RSL spokesman Trey Fitz-Gerald says there were "absolutely zero strings attached" to the team's $7.5 million check. RSL would welcome future talks with the city — and still has "dreams" of an academy, he says — but the team has no immediate plan.

Not convinced, the river network pledges a long fight ahead. "This is not going to be the last lawsuit from JRRN involving this complex," warns attorney Karthik Nadesan.

Adds Salt, "You can bank on that."

Hearing this week

A 3rd District Court hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday to address the Jordan River Restoration Network's request for a temporary restraining order to halt construction of Salt Lake City's sports complex planned near Rose Park along the Jordan River. The plaintiffs argue the 16-field complex near 2200 North will do irreparable harm to the flood plain.