Add a 1.65-acre portion of 100 East Street in Manti to the list of public properties approved for sale to the LDS Church in Utah.
The Manti City Council voted this month to sell off part of the road after the church agreed to pay $160,000 — twice the appraised value — saying the sale would relieve the city's spending on road maintenance and help pay for a new sports complex.
The street would become the latest public piece of Utah land sold to the state's predominant faith, and comes with the threat of a lawsuit by opponents who said church ownership would block residents' ability to exercise their First Amendment rights.
"As you may be aware, the ACLU of Utah has litigated these issues in the past," the civil liberties group wrote in a November letter to Manti City Corp. "We strongly recommend that the proposed sale be rejected."
Council members approved the sale Feb. 1, after two public hearings that included input from opponents and supporters, City Administrator Kent Barton said .
That particular stretch of road isn't highly trafficked, city officials noted. The street became a dead end at its intersection with U.S. Highway 89 in 2007. The church owns the land on both sides of the street.
"It was pretty much a private driveway that we've been maintaining as a city," said Michelle Francks, the city's treasurer.
That is, of course, until the Mormon Miracle Pageant comes to town.
Every year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hosts the outdoor spectacle, which attracts thousands of visitors, as well as protesters and pamphleteers, to the surrounding streets, which are open public forums.
Protesters at future pageants may not be able to demonstrate at 100 East, Barton said. They instead would be limited to 400 North, which runs east-west.
"We just felt like the intersection is closed; it services only traffic to LDS properties, so we approached the church and asked them to buy it," Barton said. "They'd offered to purchase it, and we don't put any encumbrances on it."
Church officials declined to comment on the proposed sale.
Barton said the city needs $1 million to secure matching funding for the $4 million sports complex, and the sale would get the city over the mark.
"We've actually been having our youth play [soccer] in our cemetery in an area that hasn't been used for graves yet," Barton said. "It's kind of been a bit of an embarrassment."
Sale of public property to the Mormon church has a contentious history in Utah. Salt Lake City leaders sold a block of Main Street in the heart of downtown that was later closed to vehicle traffic and became a promenade that was privately owned but remained easily accessible by the public.
The sale led to lawsuits over whether the church could regulate behavior in the area. It later led to protests after two men were stopped by security guards when they walked through the promenade holding hands and shared a kiss in 2009. Prosecutors declined to pursue trespassing charges in the case.
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