Proposed sale of Manti street to LDS church sparks controversy
MANTI—One side argued for what it saw as a logical business deal. The other side argued that its right to free speech was being infringed.
That was the bottom line during a vocal hear public hearing of the Manti City Council on Thursday, Jan. 26 that drew a large crowd.
What was the controversy about? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants to buy the stretch of 100 East that goes from the north side of 400 North, north alongside the Manti LDS Temple, LDS Distribution Center and Manti LDS Stake Family History Center, to U.S. 89, where 100 East terminates.
While all property abutting the street in church-owned, the street is also the site of religious demonstrations and street preaching during the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant.
If the street became private, the church could ban such First-Amendment activities, which would force the preachers and evangelists to move further from the center of the pageant, the event that is the focus of their evangelistic message.
The city converted the road to a dead-end street at the recommendation of the Utah Department of Transportation in 2007. But because it is officially a municipal road, the city pays for repairs, such as crack sealing, Mayor Korry Soper told people at the hearing.
The road is approximately 1.65-acres and was appraised at $80,000, according to Soper. The church has offered the city $160,000, double the appraised value. And the city is proposing to earmark the whole $160,000 for the sports complex on the northwest end of town.
“Since there is no public property connected to the roadway, essentially the city has been maintaining a driveway for the LDS properties surrounding the street,” Soper said.
The city has been talking about selling the street property during several mayoral administrations, Soper said. Now, he said, it was time to get final public comment and move forward.
Considering all the apparent positives, it’s perhaps not surprising that 17 of the 20 people who spoke at the hearing supported the sale.
The opponents were people who had participated in evangelism and street preaching at previous pageants. The opponents said if church was permitted to purchase the road, the entire pageant area would be privately-owned, making it possible for the church to ban protesters everywhere near the performance grounds. But as long as the road continued to be public property, religious messaging would be protected.
Ned Funnell of Manti was the first opponent of the sale to speak. “I am an evangelical Christian, and I would love to see the youth of our community have a sports complex,” Funnell said. “But I came today to oppose the sale as a resident of Manti. This situation is long in the making, and I feel that it is primarily about limiting the free-speech rights of those who would protest at the pageant.”
Funnell said that on top of his concerns about the free-speech infringement, there was a conflict of interest because every member of the city council is a member of the LDS church.
“It could even be considered an inside deal,” Funnell said. “I think we need to consider the possibility that there is not an unbiased way for the council to make this decision.”
Later in the meeting, Funnell reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had delivered a letter stating its disapproval of the sale. Funnell said he planned on reporting the outcome of the new public hearing to contacts at the ACLU.
“I think you should consider that the sale could be a dangerous risk,” Funnell said. “The city could stand to lose far more than the $160,000 sale cost if the ACLU pursues litigation.”
When interviewed by the Messenger, Funnell said, “Obviously, I feel the argument against the sale is sound, and anyone thinking the case would be quickly dismissed probably doesn’t appreciate both sides of the issue.”
But the majority of attendees who spoke supported the sale. “I thought about the rights some people think Manti is taking from them by this sale, and I realize that with the way the country is going right now, a lot of people think their rights are being taken away,” said Andy Cox, chairman of the sports complex committee.
“Everyone has their own feelings and the right to their own feelings, but I don’t think that anybody who is for the sale of the street is thinking, ‘We need to take away the rights of these people.’ I think they’re thinking of the youth of our county, and I say shame on anyone who wants to take away this opportunity (to build a sports complex) from our youth.”
“Every dollar counts in our town,” said Shannon Miller of Manti. “When UDOT said that 100 East needed to be closed for safety reasons, Manti got left on the hook to maintain the road. Maintenance is expensive. The highest and best use of the property no longer rests with Manti City. I believe the road should be sold.”
Other Manti community leaders who spoke in favor of selling the road included Jane Braithwaite, Mike Jorgensen, Scott Hintze, Doug Barton and Andy Lyons.
One resident said he supported the sale because he owned nearby property and thought the value of his property value would go up. He added, “The protesters are welcome in front of my house any day. I think we could have some wonderful conversations with them.”
The council took the comments under advisement and said it would take a vote at its next meeting.