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Church sues city over planning process

An artist rendering of the Cody Wyoming Temple – Image provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

By CJ Baker
Powell Tribune
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is taking the City of Cody to court over the way the city’s planning and zoning board has handled the church’s plans to build a temple. 

Monday’s lawsuit from the church centers on a single issue: whether the city’s Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board has approved the site plan for the 9,950 square foot temple on Cody’s western edge. 

At the board’s initial June 15 meeting on the project — which drew hundreds of opponents and supporters — three of the five members in attendance voted to approve the site plan. Because that was not a majority of the full seven-member panel, Board Chair Carson Rowley ruled that the motion had failed. 

However, in its petition for review, the church says it actually passed. 

Church attorney Kendal Hoopes of Sheridan pointed to a section of Cody’s Municipal Code that says site plans are approved by a majority vote of those present at the meeting. That indicates only three votes were needed to pass. 

The church is asking a Park County District Court judge to rule that the board approved the site. 

The city has not responded to the suit.


Rowley offered that, “in the moment, I was doing exactly what I thought I was supposed to be doing.” 

The litigation’s potential impact on the city’s ongoing review of the project wasn’t immediately clear. 

Hoopes didn’t respond to questions about the intent behind the church’s petition for review, while City Planner Todd Stowell declined to comment on the implications given the pending litigation.

Meanwhile, the Planning, Zoning and Adjustment Board is set to make a final decision on the temple next week. 

The panel also held a Wednesday night meeting to hammer out the “findings of fact” that will accompany a conditional use permit and perhaps a special exemption for the project. 

Given the potential for additional litigation — opponents to the temple have also lawyered up — Rowley said the board was advised to make a written record that explains the reasoning behind its decisions. 

The board approved a conditional use permit for the temple at its June 15 meeting, effectively deciding that The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints can build a temple at the site near the Olive Glenn Golf Course. 

However, the board has yet to approve the specifics. 

For instance, it has yet to approve an exemption for the structure’s most controversial aspect — its 101-foot-high tower — and some board members have mentioned concerns about lighting. During a June 27 meeting, it appeared that only one of the six participating board members supports the church’s plans as submitted. 

The board ultimately decided to accept the church’s offer to explore the possibility of striking a compromise on the height and lighting, directing staff to discuss a development agreement. 

But in the week’s that have followed, that’s not really what’s happened. 

When asked about the status of a potential development agreement, Stowell referenced an informal July 10 meeting that Mayor Matt Hall organized between the church’s senior construction project manager, Matt Burke, and several neighbors who oppose the temple’s location. However, Hall said the meeting was not aimed at negotiating a development agreement, nor was any deal struck. 

If there’s no agreement in place by Tuesday’s meeting, “I would imagine we’re just going to go through our agenda as written and then make decisions based on what has transpired to this point and what’s been submitted to this point,” Rowley said. 

It’s possible the proceedings could be delayed further: 

The board was set to make a final decision at its July 11 meeting because it’s required to make a decision within 30 days of the initial public hearing. However, the church asked for a delay, pushing the timeline back to July 25. 

The project has been the subject of seemingly endless commentary and debate in Facebook groups and, more recently, dueling yard signs; some of the signs have been stolen or defaced. 

Hall said this month’s informal meeting was intended in part to mitigate some of the divisiveness in the community. Though there were no breakthroughs, he called it a “good, constructive conversation.”

 “At the end of the day, we’re trying hopefully to end up with a resolution that doesn’t end up in court,” Hall said. 

“I don’t know if we’re going to get there,” the mayor conceded, suggesting that further litigation might be inevitable, but he said it was still worth the effort. 

Hall said he hopes the face-to-face meet up showed church leaders that the neighboring residents are not the ones behind the anti-Mormon sentiment that has popped up in some social media conversations. 

But the debate has not shown many signs of cooling down. On Tuesday, Cowboy State Daily published comments from church bishop Todd Christensen of Cody, in which he accused the opposition of being against the church itself. 

The leaders of the Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods group have repeatedly stressed that they support the temple, just not the location. 

However, Christensen told the publication “that’s like saying, ‘It’s not about race, but I just don’t want colored kids to go to our school.’ ‘We like Jews but they should just go somewhere else.’” 

Meanwhile, the church has raised some hackles among opponents for shipping most of the temple’s components to Cody well before the first planning and zoning meeting. 

“We’re kind of a little ahead of the curve on this,” Burke explained to reporters at a June 6 open house in Cody, but “we’d hoped to have the property and the footings and foundation already done.” 

Over the past couple of months, Rowley indicated that he’s received close to 1,000 emails about the temple. 

Most have been on point, he said, with a few that have drifted more into frustration about the process or potential outcomes. 

“But you know, I think this comes with the territory,” Rowley said. “I mean, people are very interested in this; they’re very passionate about this. And you know, ultimately, at the end of the day, we as a board have to look at the facts, have to look at city code, and we’ve got to weigh those and we’ve got to come up with a decision.” 

Any challenges to the planning and zoning board’s ultimate decision will go directly to Park County District Court, as the issue will not be taken up by the Cody City Council.


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