OREM — Residents angry about a proposed housing project near Utah Valley University learned Friday that they won the first skirmish in their battle by gathering enough signatures to force a citywide vote.
"I'm happy, and I'm happy for the 71 petitioners who gave up a lot of family time to do this," said Mark Tippetts, who opposes the Palos Verdes project.
The development — planned for near Lakeridge Junior High School, 951 S. 400 West, just east of the UVU campus — would house approximately 1,600 students and contain a parking lot with room for 1,200 vehicles.
When nearby residents heard about a zoning change for the project, many felt like their voices had been ignored, Tippetts said. A citywide campaign to raise awareness and gather support to stop it soon took root.
"When we did the petition, we kind of knew that we were going to get enough signatures because we already had 2,000," Tippetts said, explaining that the group had initially petitioned the Orem City Council to reject a rezoning request.
Opponents needed to submit 6,741 signatures by April 13 to force the city to put the issue to voters. Utah County then needed to certify the signatures within 30 days.
On Friday, the county finished checking the signatures and notified the petitioners and Orem city officials that 7,568 had been certified, after eliminating signatures from people who weren't registered voters in the area.
While the effort means the project should be placed on the municipal ballot in November 2019, the City Council may decide to let the community vote on it sooner, said Steven Downs, Orem's deputy city manager.
"Parties on both sides are interested. Both the developers and the neighbors are interested in getting this settled sooner than later," Downs said. He added that the council has not had a chance to discuss the possibility of moving up the vote.
"The city obviously respects the citizen's ability. This is their constitutional right to do it," Downs said. "… The hope is that those that signed the petition were signing with accurate information to what the petition was about."
The petitioners fear the housing project, which they see as "high-density housing" rather than "student housing," will congest traffic in an already busy area and jeopardize the safety of school students.
"This is not a development that UVU owns, and because it's a private developer, they could rent to anybody," Tippetts said.
He also noted many opponents felt the project "was pushed through because Woodbury is the largest commercial developer in Utah … and UVU is obviously our largest employer."
The project's developer disagrees with their assertions.
Taylor Woodbury, chief operating officer of Woodbury Corp., which along with PEG Development is working on the housing project, said UVU students need the project and that it will benefit the community through rush-hour traffic reduction, tax revenue increases for the city and Alpine School District, and traffic improvements in the area.
"It’s unfortunate to have the student housing project delayed, but we look forward to giving people the opportunity to vote on the project in an upcoming election," he said in a prepared statement.
He said last month that his company has worked closely with UVU to bring "the first project to the area that could be like an on-campus living experience for their students."
University officials also disagree with residents' concerns they were not consulted.
Their voices were taken into consideration during discussions involving the City Council and UVU officials, Cameron Martin, UVU's vice president for university relations, said in March.
Greg Carlisle, a petitioner, conceded that officials had been receptive to their feelings.
"We want to get everybody to the table, and we have been," he said in March.
Despite what Tippetts called the developers' "unsign campaign," the petitioners will have a chance to vote on the issue because of the efforts of "grandmas, grandpas and younger people" who canvassed the city.
"I think it was a really good testament that the citizens of Orem really wanted to vote concerning this project," he said.
Orem's deputy city manager did say that after getting more information on the issue, there were some people who reached out to try to have their names removed from the petition through a campaign "driven by developers."
"The city did not get involved in any way for any campaign for or against signatures. Once the signature process started, there was no communication from the city to anybody regarding it," Downs said.
Woodbury also addressed the campaign.
"In speaking with people who signed the petition, it seemed to us that a lot of misinformation has been circulating," he said.
Nevertheless, he noted, "if this project is indeed put on the November ballot, we look forward to the opportunity to spend the next several months communicating the benefit of Palos Verdes student housing to the community."