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Public Access Right on Main St. Appraised at $500,000

Public Access Right on Main St. Appraised at $500,000

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The value to the city of the public-access right -- and its accompanying free-speech right -- on the Mormon church's Main Street plaza has been appraised at $500,000.

The appraisal was provided by J. Philip Cook & Associates to the city as a step in Mayor Rocky Anderson's plan to swap the public easement for church property in Glendale that would be used for a community center.

By law, the city must get fair-market value for its asset, City Attorney Lynn Pace said Wednesday. He said such an exchange could help the city avoid any potential lawsuit contending the city was unconstitutionally favoring a church.

Mark Lopez, a New York attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said First Amendment rights are priceless.

"We don't think you can put a price on the public's right of way or on the First Amendment," said the ACLU's national attorney in charge of the plaza case.

The city sold the block of Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for $8.1 million. The agreement provided that the church would have the right to control behavior on the block, which abuts church property on both sides, but it also included a public easement.

The ACLU successfully sued the city over speech and behavior restrictions on the plaza. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the city could not give away free-speech rights on the public easement.

The church is appealing that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the land-swap deal could make the appeal moot.

The appraisal firm put the fair-market value of the church's 2 acres in Glendale at $275,000. The church also has agreed to pay $104,586 to cover half the attorney fees owed by the city to the ACLU and $250,000 from the LDS Foundation to help build the community center. Other donors pledged $4.75 million for the center.

"If they're willing to pay more than the appraised value, that's great," said City Councilman Dave Buhler. "We sort of have to act like we're business people. If you have a willing buyer willing to pay a little bit more ... usually you'll sell it. It's not up to me to protect the church's interest."

Cook used three methodologies to estimate the value of the easement. Possible values ranged from $145,000 to almost $600,000. He did not determine how much of that value goes to free-speech rights or to pedestrian rights.

"I've looked at this as unbiased as anybody possibly could," Cook said. "It is a subjective assignment. How do you appraise speech rights?"

Cook assigned monetary values to various components of the plaza not related to the easement, including the church's right to access its neighboring properties, the subsurface rights, the utility and emergency easements retained by the city, the church's right to design the plaza. He attempted to balance the value the church would gain by obtaining the easement and what the city would give up.

He said that even if the city eliminates the easement, it would retain control of other parts of the plaza, such as prohibiting the church from erecting buildings on the plaza. That lowered the amount of money left over for the easement.

The end result was putting the easement's value at about 5 percent of the plaza's total value.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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