Several minority groups filed a $10 million civil rights, class-action lawsuit today against Bluffdale, alleging the city exercises arbitrary discriminatory practices against protected groups by not allowing low-income housing.
The Salt Lake branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Disabled Rights Action Committee, Anderson Development and several individuals filed the lawsuit this morning in 3rd District Court.
The lawsuit claims the city’s zoning practices exclude seniors, single people, low-income people and minorities. Bluffdale has a population of 4,200 mostly white residents, largely living on 1- and 5-acre lots.
"The city of Bluffdale absolutely does not discriminate based on housing," Bluffdale City Attorney Kevin Watkins said today. "The city council doesn’t consider race or religion or any other fact that’s unrelated to housing development."
At a news conference this morning, developer Rundassa Eshete, a native of Ethiopia who has lived in Russia and earned a master’s degree in business administration from Brigham Young University, was among the plaintiffs who has tried to build a lower-income development.
"From my experiences of living in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s I clearly understand what oppressive government is," he said. "The leadership of Bluffdale City and the recent action resembles the Soviet Communist government in many ways."
The lawsuit filed by attorney Michael Hutchings, a former 3rd District judge, points to a City Council meeting last year when former Councilman Greg Wolsley told Eshete that "I personally don’t think there is any acceptable place in Bluffdale for high-density housing."
"We came to Bluffdale with a very good plan to build affordable housing, but we were denied unfairly," Eshete said. "I believe Bluffdale city officials couldn’t see beyond their personal agenda of keeping their community segregated."
Watkins called Eshete’s proposal at that time "not well-planned."
At today’s news conference, Salt Lake branch NAACP President Jeanetta Williams said her organization’s national office allowed the local branch to join the lawsuit because the NAACP wants to make sure that people in Utah know "we are very serious when we say we will not tolerate any type of discrimination" in the state.
"Bluffdale city engaged in a calculated pattern of activity whose whole purpose is to prevent diversity in their community, which comprises approximately 4,000 persons in southern Salt Lake County," Williams said. "The effect of Bluffdale’s land use and housing policies is to keep Bluffdale city an all-white community."
Two members of the Disabled Rights Action Committee also said at the news conference that by not allowing lower-income housing, Bluffdale is excluding disabled people and senior citizens from the city.
Among those, Barbara Toomer pointed out that Utah law requires ground-floor apartment units to be accessible to disabled individuals. That is why it is important for new developments to be built, she said.
"It’s not right to exclude people just because you don’t want them," she said.
This isn’t the first time Bluffdale has been sued over low-income housing issues. Anderson Development, represented by Hutchings, sued after Bluffdale denied Anderson’s bid to rezone 27 acres for high-density housing near the intersection of Bangerter Highway and Redwood Road. But in a May 2 ruling, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg dismissed that case.
Lindberg later refused to recuse herself from other land development-related lawsuits against Bluffdale city, despite allegations that her husband has ties to Bluffdale officials involved in the litigation.