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Opponents of a planned 16-field soccer complex along the Jordan River asked the Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday to invalidate Salt Lake City's bond issue, arguing there was insufficient notice of a February court hearing on the matter.
The Jordan River Restoration Network and residents who want to retain the open space at 1900 W. 2200 North also raised questions of whether the complex fits with city plans for the area, but justices showed little interest in hearing those claims.
A 3rd District judge ruled that the $15.3 million bond issue authorized by city voters in 2003 was valid. The Supreme Court appeal, according to attorneys, will hinge on whether justices believe the 3rd District's notice of last winter's court hearing published online and in the Intermountain Commercial Record was sufficient to alert residents to the right to attend and question city officials.
"The choice of the Intermountain Commercial Record," as opposed to The Salt Lake Tribune or Deseret News, "is inexplicable," restoration network attorney Karthik Nadesan said after Tuesday's arguments.
Project opponents had requested a notice in one of the major newspapers, but City Attorney Ed Rutan said Tuesday that they were too late in doing so.
The case grows out of a rarely used state law called the Bond Validation Act. It allows taxing entities to sue their own taxpayers to validate voter-approved bonds. That's what the city did when project foes threatened to delay work on the sports fields for years with their own civil lawsuits.
Suing under the act gives taxpayers a chance to cross-examine leaders at a court hearing, and that's what some did at the 3rd District hearing last winter. The judge then ruled in the city's favor, but opponents say more taxpayers would have participated if they had seen the notice.
Rutan said the city directly notified restoration network attorneys of the hearing, and they, in turn, notified their members. Those members were the most interested taxpayers, he said, so he disputes that people were left out.
"They [Jordan River Restoration Network] gave notice to over 500 people," Rutan said, "and only 18 showed."
Resident Lucy Knorr, a horse owner who has asserted that the loss of open space could force her to leave the area, addressed the court and said the project doesn't fit with a city plan in place before the bond election. Chief Justice Christine Durham responded that the legal question is about the validity of the bond issue, not construction that might use those bonds.
Senior City Attorney Evelyn Furse told the justices that voter intent was at stake.
"If the process gets derailed," she warned, "it must be understood that it is the vote of the people that also is derailed."
Opponents said that isn't so clear. Outside the courtroom, Nadesan said voters approved the bonds with the understanding that there would be 30 soccer fields and two baseball fields on 220 acres, but the project later changed to include just 16 soccer fields and no baseball fields on 160 acres.
"We think the vote didn't apply to this 'semi-project,' " he said.
Jeff Salt, an activist with the restoration network, said his group will attempt an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the state court rules for the city.