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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The city Planning Commission has narrowly rejected a proposal to swap Mormon church-owned land on the city's west side for full control of the public Main Street plaza walkway.
The 4-3 decision came just before midnight Wednesday after a six-hour meeting.
Planning Commission decisions aren't binding; rather, they are recommendations on issues the City Council must decide. The council hasn't indicated when it would take up the plaza proposal.
Formulated with Mormon church approval, Mayor Rocky Anderson's land-swap proposal has been presented as a way to end the divisiveness over free speech on the one-block stretch of Main Street the church bought in 1999.
The sale agreement promised to maintain a public easement through the pedestrian plaza the church built, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would have the power to control speech, dress and behavior.
In October, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court ruled the city, not the church, had the power to control the public on the plaza.
Anderson, along with a group called Alliance for Unity, said the church's land in the Glendale neighborhood would be developed into a community center.
But the Planning Commission decided, as did the 10th Circuit, that the city must protect First Amendment and other constitutional rights on the plaza.
"The most important element of this proposal for me is the ability for people now and in the future to have guaranteed access through a very important part of our city," said Commissioner Jennifer Seelig.
Until Wednesday night, the mayor's proposal had sailed through the public process, winning endorsements from community councils.
Commissioner Arla Funk, who voted for the land swap, said more people would benefit from the creation of a community center in Glendale than by keeping an easement on the Main Street Plaza.
"If we have to give free speech away by giving up the easement, I think that's warranted in this situation," Funk said. "We have the opportunity to solve the problem tonight."
Commissioner Laurie Noda voted against the swap and wants the city to construct time, place and manner regulations. "To a certain extent we have to allow dissent," she said. "It's a hallmark of a mature society."
She said the land swap would not create peace, as the mayor suggested, because there would be more lawsuits.
Indeed, Stephen Clark, former staff attorney for the Utah American Civil Liberties Union, told the commission that a deal to swap free-speech rights on Main Street in exchange for a community center on the west side creates only the illusion of peace over the issue.
It also would create a new legal challenge, Clark said, one he believes it would be easy to win.
City Attorney Ed Rutan responded that the city's proposal isn't meant to protect the church but to create a community center.
Besides warning of potential future litigation, Clark said that in order for Main Street Plaza not to be a public forum, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might have to put a fence around it, thus closing off any access to the northern neighborhoods, Clark said.
Though the Planning Commission, which is only and advisory body to the City Council, decided not to support the plaza compromise, other groups have supported it. They include the Downtown Alliance, Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, the city's transportation advisory committee and several neighborhood groups.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)