The debate over a planned Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Cody seems to be destined for a legal purgatory.
An ongoing dispute over the temple continues to evolve in the wake of the city giving the church its final OK to begin building. The latest volley is a new court petition filed Monday seeking to halt construction.
This petition came from Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods, a group that opposes the temple location. Members of the group also have argued that the temple would detract from the neighborhood by being illuminated much of the time, cause increased traffic and would destroy the viewshed with its 77-foot steeple.
The church already filed two court petitions in July challenging prior decisions made by the Cody Planning and Zoning Board.
“They started it, we just have to raise the ante I guess,” Carla Egelhoff, a member of the group, told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday.
Monday’s petition asks for the same as the prior petitions — challenging the Planning and Zoning Board’s decision to approve the temple’s conditional use permit earlier this month.
Although the church had originally opposed the board potentially shooting down the 77-foot steeple in two court petitions, it eventually got its way on the project after an Aug. 8 meeting where the board approved its site plan.
Terry Skinner, another member of the opposition group, said they plan to file another petition appealing the temple’s site plan in court on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods has gathered 962 signatures on petitions opposing the temple location and describes the fight as a “David vs. Goliath” battle. In a Monday Facebook post, the group accuses the church of threatening and intimidating the Cody community and city officials for the 101-foot temple (building plus steeple) they believe exceeds building code requirements.
“Please understand that only as a last resort did we, today, file an appeal of the Planning and Zoning Board’s decisions,” the group writes on Facebook.
Skinner and Egelhoff said the temple issue isn’t limited to the effect the temple will have on their neighborhood, but rather the precedent it could set for the city and how it follows its codes.
“The citizens deserve to feel when they purchase property in Wyoming and in Cody that the ordinances will be upheld, the zoning laws will be upheld, otherwise why have them?” Egelhoff questioned. “No other church in Cody has to have these special requirements.
“This house of worship should be the same.”
Crux Of The Petition
Skinner believes the best place for the temple issue to be resolved is in court.
“We feel that the proper end result is for this to end up in district court and let the judge decide everything,” Skinner said. “Let this end up where it belongs — that’s in district court with the judge there.”
Monday’s petition focuses on the conditional use permit, which lays out a number of findings and stipulations regarding the temple’s construction. Egelhoff and Skinner believe there were a number of flaws in these findings, such as compliance with the city’s master plan.
P&Z held a work session in mid-July to discuss the findings, which were then finalized in another meeting a week later.
Protect Our Cody Neighborhoods argues that by rescinding a special exemption permit to build a 77-foot tower on the temple, the church gave up approval to have this part of the building built.
The church, city attorney, city planner and P&Z chairman have all argued that by not fully resolving the issue of height within the CUP, there was no regulation in place on the matter. Representatives from the church have said they believe the temple is now fully approved, which city staff also believes.
For the project’s conditional use permit, the board determined the highest point of the temple facility would be measured at the main roof of the building about 26 feet off the ground, but P&Z Chair Carson Rowley told Cowboy State Daily last week that this alone does not disqualify construction of the tower as proposed.
Rowley said by virtue of the church pulling its exemption request and the planning board never resolving the height issue within the site plan, it allowed the church to find a loophole of sorts within Cody City Code where it could move forward with the project as originally proposed.
In a nutshell, because the steeple wasn’t denied, it was tacitly approved.
Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods said two of the three members of Planning and Zoning Board who voted to approve the site plan Aug. 8 expressed concern about the court petitions filed by the church.
Cody Mayor Matt Hall put an administrative hold on the temple building permit until Cody City Council can give more consideration to what was approved and how it would like the project to proceed forward, a move Skinner said gave his group “hope.”
But it's unclear what if any action the council could take regarding the temple, which only needed P&Z approval. The council spent a significant amount of time discussing the issue in an executive session.
“We would hope and encourage the city council, city administrator and mayor to withhold the issue of that building permit, to allow this to run the course through district court,” Skinner said.
Rowley said he considers the temple a done-deal and doesn’t expect it to come back before his board.
If a request for injunction is filed in court on any of the petitions, it could lead to a court order to stop construction of the temple project until the case is resolved.
The temple controversy has led to significant division in Cody, an issue City Council member Don Shreve touched on during their meeting last week. He encouraged those who support the temple to talk with leaders of the church about the tower height and “do something to heal the community.”
“I question whether Cody is going to be OK,” he said. “The way my phone has blown up, the emails that I get, there’s a scar in this community right now.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.