Judge allows church to begin building Cody temple

Says he doesn’t know which side will prevail in appeal

Posted 2/1/24

While litigation over the project continues, a judge won’t block The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from starting to build its planned temple in Cody.

A group of neighbors …

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Judge allows church to begin building Cody temple

Says he doesn’t know which side will prevail in appeal


While litigation over the project continues, a judge won’t block The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from starting to build its planned temple in Cody.

A group of neighbors opposed to the temple location had asked District Court Judge John Perry to order a halt to construction until their appeal of the project is resolved, but he denied that request on Tuesday.

Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods faced an uphill battle to secure a stay, needing, in part, to show that they’re likely to succeed with their bid to overturn the City of Cody’s approval of the project. In a brief ruling, Perry said the group had failed to meet that burden.

“At this point,” he wrote, “the court simply cannot tell which party will prevail on review.”

The LDS church had voluntarily agreed to hold off on construction until Perry ruled on the request for a stay, or injunction. However, the church secured permission from the City of Cody to start construction back in September, when the city issued a building permit for the project.

“There are no other City of Cody requirements that the LDS Church must satisfy before beginning construction,” Cody City Attorney Scott Kolpitcke said in a Wednesday email.

Church officials didn’t respond to questions about their next steps by press time Wednesday.

As for Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods, group members said they’ll continue with their appeal.

“Really, nothing has changed. The fight’s on,” said member Terry Skinner. “We’re going to continue to plow forward and just do what we must and what we’re being advised by our attorneys …”


A long process

The LDS church won approval for the project following a long, convoluted and contentious planning process. It kicked off last March, when church leaders publicly announced their intent to build the 9,950 square temple on a 4.7 acre piece of land off Skyline Drive, just west of the Cody golf course.

Neighbors quickly raised objections, contending the building’s lighting, traffic and impact to the viewshed were all inappropriate for the area. Hundreds of area residents weighed in at public meetings and in comments to the Cody Planning and Zoning Board, with passionate testimony for and against the project.

The temple’s tower — which rises to a height of 100 feet, 11 inches — became a point of particular scrutiny. The property’s rural residential zoning limits buildings to 30 feet high, but City Planner Todd Stowell and City Building Official Sean Collier determined the tower was a rooftop projection and not a part of the height.

A majority of board members rejected that interpretation, but the decision was taken out of their hands when church officials withdrew their request for a special exemption.

The board gave its final, somewhat reluctant approval to the project in August, followed by Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods’ appeal in Park County District Court; the church also has its own pending appeal, contending the board actually approved the project in June.

In arguing for a stay, group attorney Deb Wendtland of Sheridan said Stowell and Collier wrongly relied on the International Building Code. She contended that the city’s zoning laws do not exempt towers from the height limit and that the zoning trumps the code.

Meanwhile, an attorney for the LDS church, Kendal Hoopes of Sheridan, said the staffers had correctly interpreted the regulations.

Judge Perry heard an hour-and-a-half’s worth of arguments and considered multiple briefs before concluding that the case is currently too close to call.


Records dispute

Wendtland has also charged that Stowell, who is a member of the church, tilted the process in the church’s favor.

To bolster her case, Wendtland sought to supplement the case’s official record with documents obtained via a public records request. They include Board Chair Carson Rowley saying he had lost all trust in Stowell and then-Vice Chair Scott Richard saying he felt as if the decision was made without them.

At last month’s hearing, Wendtland honed in on another message, that indicated the former owner of the church’s property had offered to hire Stowell if his work had any “fallout.” However, Stowell never accepted the offer and an attorney for the church said the message may have simply been meant to be supportive.

In his Tuesday ruling, Judge Perry reaffirmed that he would not be adding any messages to the official record. He said the records picked out by the neighbors are “at best what appears to be an incomplete picture of what might have happened in the political give and take between city officials.” Perry noted the officials could have had other conversations that offered more clarity or resulted in them changing their minds.

“... absent some criminal conduct, or actions tantamount to criminal conduct, the court is hard-pressed to picture a situation where it would be entitled into such political discussion that, like it or not, are part and parcel of local government,” Perry wrote.

He did allow some less controversial documents — such as materials submitted to the city by the church’s engineer — to be added to the official record that he’ll review.

Other messages obtained by the group show the strain the process placed on the all-volunteer board, which was the sole decision-maker.


What’s next

In the wake of the temple process, Cody Mayor Matt Hall said he wanted to review and revamp the way the city handles planning issues and he announced the formation of a Mayor’s Task Force last week. He said the group of council members and planning and zoning board members will make recommendations “to create a more responsive and adaptive system that accommodates the evolving needs of our city.”

The task force’s recommendations are expected to be publicly unveiled this month, while the parties in the temple dispute will begin briefing their pending appeals.