A proposed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Cody has drawn passionate debate from locals who support and oppose construction of the building, slated for a vacant tract of land overlooking a main thoroughfare of the city.
Although what is officially known as the Cody Wyoming Temple project previously received approval from the Cody Planning and Zoning Board, it has not received approval for its most controversial feature — a 77-foot steeple rising out from the main roof of the temple.
Still, Cody business owner Glenn Nielson confirmed to Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday that he’s leasing land in back of his Y-Tex Corp. location to store various pods with a company one could “logically” assume is related to the project.
“Yes, I believe there are some construction materials as relates to this project, but that’s just my putting puzzle pieces together,” he said. “From a technical standpoint, no.”
Nielson said he was approached by another business that asked if he could store the pods. He didn’t ask the company what is inside the pods, nor did it tell him.
Nielson donated the land for the temple but said that’s not a representative of any kind on the project.
A Big Deal
The temple discussion has become a passionate topic for many Cody residents, some of whom live miles away from the proposed temple site and wouldn’t be able to see it from their own homes.
At the first public meeting about the temple, an estimated 600 to 700 attended. During a second meeting held during the middle of the day on a weekday, at least 300 still showed up.
A typical planning and zoning meeting draws closer about 10-20 members of the public.
“It’s been interesting to see how much people want to be involved in this,” said Planning and Zoning Board Chairman Carson Rowley. “They want to know what’s going on and what the future is. It’s good.”
Others like Cody Mayor Matt Hall and Rowley said they haven’t seen any discrimination based on religion during public meetings and believe nearly all public conversations related to the temple have been civil.
“I feel like our meetings have been fantastic,” Rowley said.
Nielson, a former liaison to the planning board when he was on the Cody City Council, said the approval process has been confusing and is progressing in an unprecedented manner. He believes dialogue and education are key to this process.
“I don’t believe that the Planning and Zoning members had the work sessions to understand what they’re even voting on,” he said. “And I believe the agenda items have been somewhat nuanced and confusing and repetitive and overlapping and conflicting.”
Where It Stands Now
On Tuesday, the board had been scheduled to discuss the church’s special exemption application to exceed the 30-foot height in the area it’s planned for, which is zoned rural residential. At mid-morning, it was announced the three agenda items related to the temple discussion would be delayed to the board’s next meeting July 25.
Rowley said the discussion was delayed at the request of the church.
The biggest contention over the temple is its height, amplified by a 77-foot steeple that tops the building out at 101 feet tall overall. Cody City Planner Todd Stowell determined the steeple shouldn’t be counted against building height rules because it technically isn’t part of the roof.
Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods, a group that opposes the proposed temple location and its design, believes this is an incorrect interpretation of city building code.
Others have said they would accept the temple if it was built without its steeple, while others have expressed they don’t believe the temple’s design is architecturally consistent with other buildings in Cody.
“The message from residents, as far as the height of the temple, is that they're not interested in a 100-foot bell tower,” Terry Skinner, a member of Preserve Our Neighborhoods, told Cowboy State Daily on June 27.
Stowell and others have argued that the temple’s steeple shouldn’t even have to undergo a special exemption process. During a June 27 meeting on the temple, zoning board member Matt Moss agreed and made a motion to say the Cody Wyoming Temple complies with the building code so a special exemption for the steeple isn’t necessary. This motion was rejected.
At that meeting, the board approved a motion that any approval of a conditional use permit would be contingent on accepting the special exemption for the steeple. This action rescinded a previous vote accepting the permit.
Rules And Interpretations
Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods has argued that Stowell is ignoring the Cody Master Plan in his height determination.
“They need to adhere to the master plan,” Carla Egelhoff, a member of the group, told Cowboy State Daily on June 27.
Although the master plan is a guide for development in Cody city limits, it is not considered hard and fast zoning regulations.
But during the June 27 meeting, certain members of the board disagreed with many of Stowell’s findings in his staff report on the temple project.
When asked by Cowboy State Daily if a home could be built in the same rural residential neighborhood with a 71-foot radio tower fixed on top of it, Stowell said he couldn’t answer for certain as special regulations apply to homes with radio towers and antennas on their roofs.
Although it’s in a different zoning district, the Park County Courthouse in downtown Cody features a clocktower that is nearly as tall as the proposed temple.
Some detractors of the temple have pointed to a remark made in Stowell’s staff report on the project where he said a new road connecting an area near the temple to a main highway running through town could be a benefit. They have argued that this mention is proof the temple had been planned long before it was made public.
Nielson said he had been approached by a third-party about donating the land for the Church and after considering many factors decided it would be the right choice. The Nielson family are well-known multi-generational benefactors in Cody and members of the Church to a variety of causes and religious denominations.
“Any way that I can help what I believe to be a good right cause that helps people, and therefore families and therefore societies, anything I can do to help, I would do it,” he said. “Any good cause, I want to be a part of it.”
Latter-day Saints Factor
Nielson said he respects and is cognizant of differing viewpoints from his own on the topic of the temple, but also believes some opposing the project haven’t shown the same respect in return.
He said he’s attempted to talk through concerns about the temple to detractors and offer possible compromises and solutions. Through these conversations he’s come to two conclusions.
“It’s either emotional, dislike for change and concern about what this thing might do, which all of us have,” he said. “Or that yes, there is resistance to this faith and its belief system or its belief of values, because there’s no other explanation. All these other things are talking points so far as I can conclude.”
Nielson hopes neighboring residents opposing the project can accept city code and what he believes is a justifiable placement for the house of worship.
Some temple opponents have criticized the fact that Stowell, a member of the church, was the one who compiled the staff report on the project, which he recommended approval for.
The city of Cody employee handbook addresses conflict of interest matters. It says that any "special consideration" for potential issues of conflict of interest requires that "no employee shall have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect" that conflicts with the public interest. It also bases its ethics policy on "avoiding the appearance or reality of a conflict of interest."
Stowell has said that every decision made in his recommendation also took input from the city administrator, public works director and the city attorney.
“That’s how we’ve addressed the concern (of conflict of interest),” Stowell said.
He also told Cowboy State Daily that since he’s the only professional planner in the city, no one else would have been qualified to write the staff report.
When asked if he believes religious discrimination has played a factor in the temple discussions, Stowell declined to comment.
On Tuesday night, Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods announced on Facebook that Hall arranged a meeting between the group and the project manager for the temple. No negotiations took place, but the group considered the meeting “useful.”
Nielson said he hopes the approval process can continue with meaningful dialogue.
“That things continue to progress in some fashion or another,” he said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.