Of the four candidates running for two seats on the Logan Municipal Council, one is a former councilman who was involved in a lawsuit against the city.

A question from an audience member at last week’s candidate forum brought attention to the 16-year-old lawsuit in which then-Councilman Steve Thompson was one of six plaintiffs.

“The thing that I want to stress is that I did not sue the city,” Thompson said in an interview this week.

He kind of did, though. Thompson and five of his neighbors filed a lawsuit in 1st District Court in August 2001 in response to Logan’s plans to replace six diesel generators with three natural gas turbines at a power plant located at 331 S. 300 West. The plant had been operating there since 1927.

After the power plant was installed 90 years ago, a residential neighborhood grew around it and the area was eventually zoned as residential. By 1976, the power plant was legally nonconforming to city code, meaning a new generator would not have been allowed in the same spot, but the existing generator was allowed to remain since it was there before the zoning changed. Power plants are not allowed to be built in residential zones.

In 2001, the six plaintiffs, who all lived in the neighborhood surrounding the power plant, alleged that converting the plant to natural gas was not an expansion or extension of that nonconforming use. Their court filing claimed that the power plant would not continue to be operated in the same way as it was at the time that it became nonconforming. The city also planned to renovate the building.

“They were going to expand the building and expand the use and not go through the city process,” Thompson said, and “essentially not follow their own rules.”

But Thompson said the lawsuit was not intended to prevent the conversion from diesel to natural gas. The plaintiffs had a broader goal of moving the power plant out of their neighborhood. After attempting to go through the neighborhood council, Thompson said legal action was their only recourse.

“We were hoping that the thing would go away,” Thompson said. “When they run, they’re noisy. There is (nitrogen oxides), even though they’re natural gas, there is a pollution factor.”

Kymber Housley, now Logan city attorney, was part of the legal team defending the city at the time. In a memo to the court in favor of a summary judgement instead of going to trial, the defense stated that the plaintiffs had a political goal and should seek a “remedy at the ballot box” instead of going to court.

“Even though they were arguing specifically that this was an unlawful expansion, I don’t think their goal was to keep diesel generators,” Housley said. “Their goal was to eliminate the power plant from that neighborhood.”

Housley said Logan discussed moving the generators elsewhere but deemed it cost prohibitive as there was already extensive infrastructure at the power plant’s location.

The Logan attorneys argued that the conversion to natural gas was just a modification of the existing nonconforming use and that it would actually benefit the neighborhood by converting to natural gas, but the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs because the new generators would have a longer lifespan than the diesel generators.

Logan then rezoned the land occupied by the power plant from Residential to Public, a designation used for land with public facilities, and converted the generators.

“The city changed the zoning and they went in anyway,” Housley said. “The lawsuit didn’t stop it from happening; it just caused a delay.”

That delay ended up causing Logan $1 million, according to a statement made by then-Logan Light and Power Director Ron Saville in the minutes of a May 29, 2002, Logan Municipal Council workshop session.

Instead of being able to produce its own energy at that power plant, Logan had to buy more energy on the open market at a considerably higher cost compared to in-house production.

During last Wednesday’s debate, an audience member asked Thompson how he could justify the lawsuit and its cost to the citizens. Further, the audience member asked why then-Councilman Thompson didn’t work with the city instead of suing it.

Thompson said it was personally expensive for himself and the neighborhood to sue, but he felt it was important. He said it was a safety and environmental concern for them and thought it would be best to take out that plant and move it to a better location.

“I’m an advocate, a fierce advocate, for the citizens of Logan city, not the Logan city corporation,” Thompson said.

Candidate Jess Bradfield then asked Thompson how costing the citizens of Logan “millions of dollars” for a lawsuit is representing those citizens.

Thompson said that location was not the best use for energy generation. He said the city would have saved money in the long run by building a larger generation facility elsewhere.

Eight years later, in May 2009, Thompson stepped down from the Logan Municipal Council several months before his four-year term ended to take a $45,000 fundraising and grant-writing position for the city, according to a June 25, 2009, article in The Herald Journal, to pursue stimulus money for wastewater treatment and energy technology.

“I was a lobbyist,” Thompson said.

He said part of his role was to bring state officials to the table to negotiate a time frame to bring Logan’s wastewater treatment effluent into compliance with Utah Division of Water Quality phosphorus standards. If Logan didn’t come to an agreement, he said ratepayers would have seen a sharp increase in their sewer bills.

“If we hadn’t done that we would have been fined every day … and it would have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Thompson said.

Logan Environmental Director Issa Hamud said this was before the city was required to build a mechanical wastewater treatment plant. At the time, the city was considering alternatives to deal with high levels of phosphorous in water that eventually ends up in Cutler Reservoir. The leading option was to build digesters, grow and harvest algae in the wastewater lagoons and create biofuel.

Before they could solve the phosphorous problem, Hamud said they needed more time to push back against some of those state requirements. He said the city asked for more leniency and more time.

“It was more than anything a campaign effort where we’re making our pain and suffering — due to these new regulations — to make them aware, and we’ve succeeded,” Hamud said.

Thompson he said he was able to bring the Division of Water Quality to the table and negotiated an agreement to delay the penalties for not complying with state standards.

“Those guys know that I was definitely worth that amount,” Thompson said, referring to his $45,000, one-year contract.

Thompson said money did not impact his decision to step down from the Municipal Council and take the higher-paying consulting position.

“It really wasn’t about pay,” said Thompson, the owner of a media production company. “I’m not flying around in a jet, but I’ve always had the resources to do with — I have to be careful — but to do the things I want to do.”

If elected in November, he said he wouldn’t categorically rule out suing the city or stepping down early if an opportunity arose to help the citizens of Logan.

sdolan@hjnews.com Twitter: @RealSeanDolan

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