Neighbor group seeks to keep Cody temple on hold

Posted 1/18/24

A judge will decide whether to let construction begin on a new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Cody, or to keep the project on hold until a legal challenge is resolved.

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Neighbor group seeks to keep Cody temple on hold


A judge will decide whether to let construction begin on a new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Cody, or to keep the project on hold until a legal challenge is resolved.

Following a long, contentious review process, the City of Cody issued a building permit for the 9,950 square foot temple in September. However, the project has remained in legal limbo, as a group of neighbors are challenging the city’s approval in Park County District Court.

At a Tuesday hearing, an attorney for the Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods group asserted that their appeal will “likely” result in the city’s permit being overturned.

Deb Wendtland argued that the process was tainted by bias from City Planner Todd Stowell, who is a member of the LDS church. At one point, Wendtland charged that the planner misinterpreted the city’s zoning ordinances related to building height because he “wanted this building to succeed.”

However, those contentions were disputed by an attorney for the LDS church. Kendal Hoopes noted the decision to approve the temple was ultimately made by the Cody Planning and Zoning Board, not Stowell, and he argued that the planner and the board got it right.

City of Cody officials said last year that Stowell’s membership in the church did not present a conflict. During Tuesday’s hour-and-a-half-long hearing, the attorney representing the city and its planning board, Thomas Rumpke, generally deferred to the church’s comments.

“The board submits the decisions in this matter are supported by substantial evidence in the record and are otherwise in accordance with the law,” Rumpke said.

The church voluntarily agreed to hold off on construction until presiding District Court Judge John Perry rules on the neighbors’ request for a stay, or injunction. However, Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods faces an uphill battle, as judges generally must defer to city officials’ decisions. The group could face even longer odds if Perry denies the stay and allows the church to begin construction while the appeal remains pending.


A question of height

The LDS church intends to build the roughly $41 million temple west of the Olive Glenn Golf Course, abutting a residential neighborhood and west of Skyline Drive. The roughly dozen members of Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods have taken the position that the temple should be built elsewhere. Wendtland said the group intends to appeal the temple’s permit “on many issues,” including the facility’s lighting, glare, traffic, safety and viewshed. On Tuesday, however, she focused almost exclusively on the structure’s tower, which rises to a height of 100 feet, 11 inches.

During the Cody planning board’s months-long review of the proposal, the tower proved to be the most contentious element — not only because of its prominence, but because buildings in the rural residential zone are generally limited to 30 feet in height.

Stowell and City Building Official Sean Collier, who is not a church member, concluded that the tower was a rooftop projection and exempt from the 30-foot limit. 

A majority of the planning and zoning board members rejected Stowell and Collier’s interpretation, believing the church needed a special exemption to build the tower over the 30-foot limit. However, when it became clear that staff didn’t believe a special exemption was needed, the church withdrew its request for one. That took the decision out of the board’s hands, prompting some members to publicly lament the church’s decision.

“There was no subterfuge,” Hoopes said Tuesday. “The church was just trying to comply with the direction they were receiving from the city as we worked through this.”

He said there was no question that city staff had correctly interpreted the regulations.

Wendtland had a different take, arguing that because Stowell wanted the temple to go forward, “somebody had to come up with a definition that would shove a 100-foot tall building into a 30-foot restriction.”

While staff pointed to exemptions within the International Building Code, Wendtland argued the city’s zoning laws offer no exemptions, “so nothing can exceed that 30-foot height limit … for building height.”


Allegations of bias

Preserve Our Cody Neighborhoods has also been seeking to introduce multiple emails, texts and other documents that they obtained late in the process via a public records request. The church and city contend the documents are not a part of the official record, and Perry agreed last month, keeping the evidence out of the case.

The neighbors are now appealing and specifically pressing to get a few additional pieces of evidence into the record.

One is a text Stowell received from Glenn Nielson, who donated the 4.69-acre piece of land for the temple. In the June message, Nielson complimented the planner’s work during the contentious process and offered him a job “if your work has any fallout.”

Stowell didn’t respond to the message, but the neighbors contend it’s evidence of an unlawful conflict of interest.

When Perry questioned what value the planner had received, Wendtland offered that “it was standing within that church, standing within that LDS community, certainly the job offer.

“That is a powerful thing within that organization,” she said.

However, Hoopes countered that Nielson may have simply been offering support to the planner and that there was no evidence of misconduct by Stowell.

“The focus is, did the city planner ask for a benefit or receive a benefit? And he didn’t,” Hoopes said.

He added that the benefits Stowell would realize from a new temple are no different from any other church member — and he noted testimony that the facility would bring economic benefits to the entire Cody community.

Hoopes made a similar argument while disputing the neighbor group’s contention that the temple will cause irreparable harm, pointing out that some residents in the area support the facility being built at the location. Perry will need to balance the harms to the two sides as he decides whether to issue a stay.

Wendtland contended that the public interest weighs in favor of a delay, in part by enforcing the city’s rules, while Hoopes cited a value in backing up the decision of the planning board, which came after massive amounts of public debate.

“Holding this up only furthers the difficulty they’ve been dealing with,” Hoopes said.

Wendtland said the volunteer board members “worked exceedingly hard” on an “unenviable task” that “ripped this community apart.” But she argued the board should be ordered to reconsider its decision, describing the building permit as “unlawful.”

Under existing case law, Perry can only reverse the decision if he finds the board acted arbitrarily and capriciously or that the city violated the law. Hoopes said the neighbors are unlikely to succeed, contending that the record contains “substantial support” for the board’s decisions.

Perry won’t immediately issue a ruling on the request for a stay, as he’s allowing the parties to submit additional briefs through Jan. 26.