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One week after Nibley City Council voted 3-1 to approve a high-density multiple family development the “Firefly Estates,” residents banded together to petition for a referendum against the Residential Planned Unit Development. Developers put the project on hold, and the council issued a moratorium on new developments as it readjusts zoning ordinances for future R-PUD proposals.

“The citizens of the city, we had to come up with a third of registered voters to stop it and get it put on the ballot,” said Shawna Johnson. “We did that, during a pandemic.”

Like Johnson, Kent Smith — one of the sponsors of the referendum — felt the council was not representing the desires of the community, especially in reference to Firefly Estates.

“I would say probably less than 5% were ambivalent or OK, and a slightly less than that were very much in favor of it,” Smith said.

While Gov. Gary Herbert made allowances for electronic signature gathering for referendums and petitions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith said the majority of signatures came from going door-to-door once the Stay Home, Stay Safe directive was relaxed, days before the referendum was due.

Of the roughly 3,200 registered voters in Nibley, the proposal to put Return Development’s project on hold until voters weighed in in November received 1,500 signatures, and the county verified 1,218 — more than 100 higher than was required for the referendum to pass.

Nibley’s city attorney contested the validity of the signature gathering and claimed the referendum failed to meet the state’s “requirement that referendum sponsors provide complete and accurate referendum packets to voters,” according to a letter sent to sponsors on June 11.

Now the referendum will go to a judge to determine if the proponents properly met the state’s legal requirements. The developers, co-founders Ethan Poppleton and Christopher Huffman of Return Development, are on hold until the judge’s decision.

“There’s ambiguity in the law,” said Nibley’s Mayor Shaun Dustin. “If a judge says that they met the requirements, we are totally good with that, and if he says that they didn’t, then I guess we’re stuck.”

But the city also put a moratorium on unapproved RPUD projects as the council readjusts zoning code that will apply to future proposals — which the Firefly Estate developers would need to reapply under if the measure goes to the ballot and is voted against in November.

Poppleton said he understands the residents’ rights to go through the referendum process, but the project has been in the works for years between public meetings and town halls to address rezoning ordinances and the council’s Feb. 27 vote to approve the Firefly Estates project with Kathryn Beus, Kay Sweeten and Norm Larsen for; Tom Bernhardt against; and Nathan Laursen not present (though he had emailed his thoughts to the council beforehand).

“My frustration is they don’t show up to the meetings to voice their opinion on the ordinances or the applications until it’s approved,” Poppleton said.

“With any developer, when you go through this process, you go through multiple public hearings for planning and zoning and city council, and in this case, with a PUD ordinance going in place, they had workshopped and had many, many public hearings getting the residents a voice, and those residents didn’t show up to those meetings.”

There was little public outcry against the development until the Feb. 27 meeting when the council approved it.

“The citizens who showed up at the council meeting were against it 8-1,” Johnson said. “That’s a small number, but it’s backed up by the petition.”

With the other R-PUD projects on the table in Nibley — such as the approved 95-acre Ridgeline development that will add nearly 500 units of high-density housing just East of the city offices — Poppleton said the Firefly Estates’ planned development of more than 100 townhomes and roughly 20-30 single-home lots is “just a drop in the bucket.”

But Wendy Droge said many residents don’t have an issue with the Ridgeline project because “it’s being done properly,” and “will add to the community,” such as the proposed addition of a 20-acre park to be donated to the city — the same amount of land Return Development will be using for Firefly Estates.

“There’s nothing wrong with developing, there’s nothing wrong with people coming, but why does it have to be so fast?” she said.

Mickey Duke said in his background of urban planning, it’s “astounding” that the city approved the Firefly Estates on such a small parcel of land that could change the “rural” character of Nibley.

“We’re a bedroom community,” Duke said. “The mayor and the majority of the city council feel the need for more diversified housing, that we need it quicker, but the citizens are not ready for that.”

Smith and Droge estimate there are about 1,900 single-family housing units, 28 mobile homes and 110 townhomes in Nibley currently.

In 2018, Logan Municipal Council annexed and rezoned an area just north of Virgil Gibbons Heritage Park — known by locals as Firefly Park due to the population of rare insects within the preserve — to allow Kartchner homes to develop a 364-unit apartment complex. With Ridgeline and Firefly Estates, there’s another 600-plus. And the city has other R-PUD applications to consider once the moratorium expires or is lifted.

Droge said she’s worried about the effect a jump of nearly 1,000 units would place on the city’s infrastructure.

Dustin said while there could be a population bump with the new developments, the growth is coming regardless of the council’s decision — as evidenced with the Kartchner build which will add 30 units per acre.

“One-hundred percent of that is actually going to fall on Nibley; Logan doesn’t have any impact at all from that,” he said. “All those kids are going to go to Nibley schools, all those families are going to go to Nibley churches and are going to be part of the Nibley community. They’re going to be using public parks.”

In fact, Dustin said the more people the city has, the easier it is for the city to handle infrastructure with a bigger budget as more people are paying into it.

If the judge rules the signature gathering followed all protocol and the matter is added to the ballot in November, Duke thinks voters would vote halt the development permanently. But regardless of the judge’s decision on the referendum, he would like the R-PUD application process slowed down.

“Take the time to explain to all residents, or to the 1,500 at least who signed the referendum, explain to the city of Nibley why we need these R-PUDs, what the benefits are, and get the citizens to back them,” he said. “Because at least 1,500 voters are not on the same page.”

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