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A majority of Provo Mormons who were fighting construction of a proposed high-rise at the Missionary Training Center have dropped their opposition after a local church leader asked for their support during a worship service.
On July 1, a Mormon Church stake president asked members of Provo's Pleasant View First Ward during sacrament meeting to support the church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in their decision to build the nine-story classroom building, which some neighbors had opposed because of its height.
Neighborhood chairman R. Paul Evans, a practicing Mormon, had led the opposition to the project. But after meeting with his stake president, he said he felt it was important to "support the decision of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles."
Previously, Evans' group had felt comfortable opposing the high-rise plan because, he said, church leaders emphasized that the issue of zoning was secular, not ecclesiastical.
But Sunday's "invitation" to "sustain the Brethren" was anything but secular. According to Evans, Chris Randall, president of the Sharon East Stake, announced from the pulpit that he was sharing a message from L. Whitney Clayton, of the Seventy, and Elder Russell M. Nelson, of the Twelve: They consider the MTC rebuild an ecclesiastical matter, a decision that was the result of careful and prayerful discussion. Evans had already heard the message the preceding Monday during a meeting with Randall.
Subsequently, Evans announced in an email to Provo City Community Development Director Gary McGinn that he was backing down, after four months of trying to get LDS Church leaders to sit down and consider alternatives that respect residents' concerns. (The project fits city height regulations and does not have to go to the Planning Commission for approval.)
"On Monday June 25, 2012, I received an invitation from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ecclesiastical leader relayed from a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints," Evans wrote in an email to McGinn. "The invitation was to support the decision of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to build a nine story building at the Provo Missionary Training Center. I accept the invitation."
Evans, an assistant professor of microbiology at church-owned Brigham Young University (the listed owner of the MTC), asked that his name be withdrawn from submissions to the city regarding the structure and zoning. He will remain neighborhood chairman but will not be involved in the MTC matter.
Evans isn't alone in his about-face. He said that before the invitation was extended, more than 80 percent of the Pleasant View group wanted to hold discussions with the church, which told them to take it up with MTC administrative director Richard Heaton. After the July 1 church meeting, however, an overwhelming majority decided to drop their opposition.
But not everyone was persuaded to immediately accept the "invitation."
"Everyone left [sacrament] meeting in shock," said Lorie Johnson, who will take over as leader of the opposition. She, too, had met privately with Randall before July 1, at his behest, to discuss the impending invitation and the "importance of sustaining the Brethren."
"I am still struggling with the invitation, in all honesty," said Johnson, one of several long-term residents who recall church leaders promising in the 1970s that no building at the MTC would exceed four stories.
Since the MTC plan was unveiled to area residents earlier this year, she said, leaders have maintained the issue was secular. Evans agrees, saying he met twice with Randall to make sure it was appropriate for him to oppose the building, because he didn't want to lose his job at BYU or run afoul of the church. He said Randall repeatedly affirmed that Evans didn't need to be concerned, that the message from church headquarters, passed to him and other members via MTC leaders, was that it was a zoning issue, not an ecclesiastical one.
Attempts to reach Randall Monday were unsuccessful.
Church spokesman Scott Trotter said in an email Monday that church leaders were not pressuring anyone or exercising their authority inappropriately. He confirmed that a stake president had told members the MTC plan had been approved by church leaders and asked for their support while urging them to respect those with differing views.
"To suggest that this was an attempt by Church leaders to exercise undue influence is without merit," the email said.
Johnson said that during her meeting with Randall, she asked why the nature of the issue had changed. He responded that church leaders had made it an ecclesiastical issue.
"I don't understand how a secular issue turns into an ecclesiastical issue in the middle of a controversy," she said Monday.
Evans said he also asked Randall about the sudden change, and its implications for the future, given that the Pleasant View neighborhood is bordered on three sides by BYU.
He said he asked Randall: "What's to stop future development from becoming an ecclesiastical issue?"
Randall had no immediate answer, Evens said, and Evans didn't push the issue. He said he is comfortable with his decision to support church leadership.
Both Johnson and Evans expressed admiration and respect for their stake president, saying he has been cordial despite being put in a difficult position.
As for the neighborhood group's future action, "we're struggling with what we're going to do next," Johnson said. "What we'd really like is for some decision makers from Salt Lake to sit down with us like they've promised in the past."
She added that she will be "continuing the matter pending before Provo City. Beyond that, I would assume that further actions on my part could trigger church discipline based on the invitation."
Evans says Provo City should adopt a zoning amendment for structures in a Public Facility Zone, such as the MTC. His group had proposed an amendment suggesting a height threshold that would require a public comment period. The planning commission said the amendment was too broad, according to Evans. But he said he will continue to work on the issue.
LDS Church's statement on MTC high-rise
The Church has submitted plans to construct a new building on the grounds of the Provo MTC. As part of this process, Church leaders reviewed a number of different options before deciding on the current proposal.
We informed city officials as well as residents living near the MTC of the plans. During this process leaders at the MTC have been asked about everything from whether or not other options have been considered to whether Church leaders were involved in the decision to move forward with the current proposal.
At a recent worship service a local stake president responded to these questions by telling congregants that senior church leaders had approved the plans, as they would for any significant construction project. He asked for support but also urged members to be respectful and civil to those who may have differing views on the project and made himself available to answer additional questions following the meeting.
Local leaders have simply answered questions that have been asked. To suggest that this was an attempt by Church leaders to exercise undue influence is without merit.