By Zac Taylor
Powell Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange 

After a nearly 6 hour meeting, Cody LDS temple plans still up in the air

 

June 22, 2023



By

Powell Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — The debate over the proposed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Cody is not over.

During a packed, standing room-only Thursday meeting with hundreds of people that ran until roughly 11:30 p.m., the City of Cody’s Planning and Zoning Board approved a conditional use permit for the building of the temple on a 4-1 vote.

However, the board did not approve key items needed for the structure to be built as planned.

A request for a special exemption to allow the temple’s tower to exceed 30 feet was tabled, as was the site plan application.

A site plan must be approved before any construction can begin, City Attorney Scott Kolpitcke confirmed at the end of a roughly six-hour meeting.

In essence, the proposed temple on Skyline Drive has been approved in some form, but planning and zoning board members have yet to decide the specifics, such as the height of the steeple and its lighting.

Of the board’s seven members, two did not vote on Thursday: architect Ian Morrison of Engineering Associates abstained from the process because his company is working on the project while Josh White was out of town.

Board members said they tabled items in large part so White could vote and make it more likely for the panel to reach a four-person majority.

The main objections raised by the board members in attendance related to the temple’s lighting and the height of the steeple (or tower or spire, depending on who was talking) which is proposed to rise to just over 100 feet from the ground.

The city’s rules for the rural residential zoning area set the maximum building height at 30 feet.

However, by City Planner Todd Stowell’s interpretation of the rules, the unoccupied steeple should not count toward the height of the building.

Board member Matthew Moss made a motion to endorse Stowell’s interpretation and allow the steeple to be constructed without an exemption, but it died for lack of a second.

The decisions — or lack thereof — followed more than two hours of public comments by dozens of residents in favor of and opposed to the temple being built alongside a residential neighborhood near the Cody golf course.

The tabled items will be revisited at the board’s next meeting, set for June 27, though whether it’ll take action at that time is unknown.

Back-and-forth debate

On Thursday, the doors of the Cody Auditorium opened to the public just after 6 p.m., following a closed-door executive session by the planning board that began at 5:30.

The line to get into the building started at 3 p.m., said Cody resident Grant Labarbera, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints member and one of the first in the queue.

Many other church members, as well as area residents opposed to the church’s plans, filled out the line as it snaked around the side and beyond the building.

Glenn Nielson, who donated the 4.69 acres of land to the church for the temple, was among a number of people who handed out pizzas to anyone who was hungry.

During the meeting, Nielson said he considered the gift to be a “donation to the entire [Big Horn] Basin area.” He was one of 24 people to speak in favor of the temple being in the chosen location.

Others, both for and against, noted Glenn’s grandfather Glenn Nielson who founded Husky Oil and who was a major funder of many of Cody’s institutions, from the rec center to the golf course to the sites for the two existing LDS churches in the city.

Many also noted their own generational status as Cody or Big Horn Basin natives, and the role of early members of the church in settling the Basin.

“My family showed up here in the early 1900s to be a part of the people who settled in this area,” Jay Winzenried said, adding, “I very much look forward to having a temple here. It’s going to make our worship more easily accessible and hopefully we can work together as a community to make that happen.”

Many spoke to the importance of the temple in the church and the blessings it will bring to the more than 8,000 members in the Basin, who currently must travel to Billings to go to a temple.

“We Christians need to work together to strengthen our homes, families and schools. The church buildings scattered throughout our community, almost entirely in residential areas, are bulwarks to protect and strengthen our youth against this evil world,” lifelong resident Arnie George said. “The steeples on these buildings will turn our minds and thoughts upward toward God. The temple we propose to build in our community plays a critical role in strengthening our families and homes.”

Many of those opposed spoke favorably of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but said the lot was not appropriate for the temple as proposed.

Neighborhood resident Brandi Nelson said the main opposition group, Preserve our Cody Neighborhoods, supports the temple being built in Cody, just not in the chosen location.

“You have the power to change my family’s life forever, along with many others in this room,” Nelson said.

She noted comments that the temple may lead to increased property values in the surrounding area.

“That also means my property taxes will go up and the benefit I get from it is if I intend to sell my home. I have never intended to sell my home,” Nelson said. “We are planning to stay here forever — this may change that. As a member of this community, I believe we should be able to have faith in a city upholding our codes and then any new interpretations or requests for special exemptions or conditional use permits would be handled with integrity and without bias.”

Some opponents referenced Stowell being a member of the LDS church and contended he had a bias in the process.

However, Kolpitcke said church affiliation would not necessarily be a conflict of interest for either a staffer or board member, as the city defines conflicts of interests as relating to material gain.

Some on the opposition side let their emotions bubble over.

Jack Hatfield, a deputy Park County attorney who was speaking on his own behalf, was asked to leave the podium after he raised his voice and criticized project leaders and Stowell; Hatfield said the church is “going to do whatever it wants.”

Concerns from opponents ranged from worries about traffic to lighting to the height of the steeple.

Fourth-generation Codyite Gloria Hedderman said she grew up with many great LDS friends and family members.

“I admire them so much in the way they live their lives,” Hedderman said, adding her appreciation for Glenn Nielson for all he did for Cody.

“But I’m opposed to this building because it’s so damn tall,” she said. “I mean when you think about it, it will dominate the skyline as you come out of the canyon and into Cody.”

Next steps

Although the conditional use permit was approved by the board, the church will need to get at least site plan approval to move forward with the temple — and it may need a special exemption for the tower.

Board member Kim Borer suggested the possibility of a shorter steeple, as is the case with some other LDS temples, including one in Monticello, Utah.

Both the height and lighting will be revisited by the board. It appeared as though the board might not approve the conditional use permit for the temple on Thursday night, either: Motions to table the request and to approve it initially came up short of a four-vote majority, failing on 3-2 votes.

However, board chair Carson Rowley implored the members to not let the project die for lack of a successful motion.

“I really would not like to see this fail,” Rowley said after the meeting had gone past 11 p.m. “If we need to look at other options, the direction should be to table it. I would like to see us do something.”

The permit then passed on a 4-1 vote, with Borer changing her no votes to a yes.

It’s the first house of worship allowed in a rural residential zoned area since the city established the designation in the mid-1980s, Stowell noted.

However, the board appeared to agree with Stowell’s contention that not allowing a house of worship in the zoning area could be deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” because its effect on a neighborhood isn’t appreciably different from parks, the golf courses or other gathering places allowed in that zone.

Also, Stowell said the RR zoning designation isn’t all that different from R2, which allows and indeed houses the majority of Cody’s houses of worship, 77% of which are in residential areas.

“I believe prohibiting a church from having a place of worship there, with one right up the street, I believe we’re discriminating against the church if we don’t allow a house of worship on this property,” Moss said in moving to approve the conditional use permit.

Member Dan Schein, who cast the lone no vote, said his decision-making process “was the same as it would have been for any other religious or non religious request at the same location.”

Schein said he opposed the permit because of the precedent being set and “the resistance from both neighbors and the community.”

The board did unanimously approve allowing a 6-foot-high fence on part of the property.

The panel’s June 27 meeting is set to begin at 11 a.m., with the agenda and location having yet to be announced.

Rowley said the height exemption and site plan applications would be addressed at the meeting.

This story was published on June 20, 2023.

 
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