Pushback against Northpoint plan builds as two former SLC mayors, inland port boss raise concerns

Is Salt Lake City prioritizing warehouses over farms, homes and habitat for the Great Salt Lake?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Controversy is brewing over a proposed warehouse in an agricultural district in Salt Lake City, with neighbors worrying they'll become another arm of the inland port.

As some of Salt Lake City’s remaining open space gets gobbled up by sprawling warehouses at the inland port, residents in a nearby farming community worry they might be next.

The City Council is currently reviewing an update of the Northpoint Small Area Plan for a neighborhood containing some of the last vestiges of rural life in Salt Lake County. Some fear the plan would dramatically alter the fabric of the area, bringing industrial development, truck traffic, air pollution and harm to wetland habitat critical to the beleaguered Great Salt Lake.

Those suspicions were all but confirmed when a developer sought a zoning change on 14 acres of pastureland along 2200 West, with vague references to a warehouse it plans to build.

“It’s outrageous that Salt Lake City is proposing another warehouse district, which will further degrade our air quality with polluting warehouse development, when dust from the drying Great Salt Lake is increasingly threatening to human health,” Stop the Polluting Port Coalition and Great Salt Lake Audubon wrote in call-to-action emails sent this week.

If approved, the land in question would allow changes from agricultural and residential zoning to light manufacturing. City planning staffers forwarded the request to the planning commission with a favorable recommendation, saying it aligns with the draft small area plan.

Opponents to both the rezoning proposal and draft small area plan say the city is prioritizing business and development over the homes, farms and critical habitat found in the Northpoint neighborhood near Salt Lake City International Airport.

“It would be hypocritical at this point to implement a new warehousing district when we’re trying to fight air pollution,” Northpoint resident Chris Souther said during a planning commission meeting Wednesday night. “It would be hypocritical to implement a warehouse district on top of existing residences, and take up precious land that could actually be used for residences when we’re trying to fight a housing crisis.”

A petition calling on the city to deny any plans that would turn the area into an industrial zone has more than 1,200 signatures from Utahns across the state, mostly in Salt Lake County. Former Salt Lake City Mayors Rocky Anderson and Jackie Biskupski are among the signees, according to a copy of the petition reviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune. Anderson is running against Mayor Erin Mendenhall in this year’s municipal election.

Developer says project will bring jobs and much-needed industrial zoning

At Wednesday’s meeting, however, OCC Industrial, the proposed warehouse developer, had a chance to make its case.

“If you look at an aerial of the U.S., most major cities’ airports are surrounded by industrial buildings. And that’s because cities typically don’t want to have residential areas near airports for noise and safety reasons,” Megan O’Brien, chief executive officer of OCC Industrial, said in her presentation. “But also because industrial users want to be near airports, as they offer great logistical benefits to businesses.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Controversy is brewing over a proposed warehouse in an agricultural district in Salt Lake City, with neighbors worrying they'll become another arm of the inland port.

The developers added that the zoning change would be beneficial because it’s consistent with the Northpoint Small Area Plan, supports the creation of high-quality jobs and responds to a scarcity of vacant industrial lots in this area.

About the timing of the application, OCC Industrial said its intent was to take its request to the City Council only after it approves the small area plan.

“There is a significant lack of industrial supply product in Salt Lake City and specifically in the northwest quadrant that is causing rental rates and operating expenses for businesses to skyrocket,” O’Brien said. “And this is largely due to the scarcity of vacant industrial-zone land available to develop.”

Why does Salt Lake City need more industrial zones when it has an inland port?

Opponents of the project, however, were incredulous that businesses are having a hard time finding warehouse space.

They pointed to the city’s northwest quadrant, where the Utah Legislature designated about 16,000 acres for the inland port, which is rapidly transforming into a sea of warehousing and industrial sites.

“It is not in the public interest to create another warehouse district in Salt Lake City when we’re already dealing with the consequences of the 152 million square feet available for warehouse development in the Utah Inland Port jurisdictional area,” Deeda Seed, senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, commented. “There is no shortage of available land for warehouse development.”

Even Utah Inland Port Authority Executive Director Ben Hart sent the planning commission a letter urging “great care” before allowing agricultural land to become an industrial zone.

“Residents on the west side of Salt Lake City have had a disproportionate concentration of these facilities built in their area,” Hart wrote, “and by doing so harms the environment, the economy and the quality of life for city residents.”

Preserving habitat and a way of life

Landowners in Northpoint, however, are divided on what their neighborhood’s future should be. Some see development as an opportunity to maximize their property value, while others want to preserve their rural way of life.

“How can you expect residents to live with [manufacturing zoning] within 300 feet of our homes?” Northpoint resident Natalie Thompson asked.

Other residents shared concerns that approving this single rezoning request would have a domino effect in the area, leading to even more warehouses and fewer farms.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deeda Seed speaks against a warehouse development proposal along the 2200 West corridor during a meeting of the Salt Lake City planning commission on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.

“If you push this upzoning, it will be setting a precedent for others to develop this area with even more polluting industries,” resident Susan Corth said. “It’s just another nail for the Great Salt Lake environmental coffin.”

The Great Salt Lake loomed large in discussions about Northpoint’s future. It has lost so much water and wetland habitat that signs of its ecological collapse have surfaced. Conservation groups and environmental advocates said Northpoint lies next to some of the lake’s most important wetlands in Farmington Bay, and its open space and fields support habitat for millions of migrating birds.

“Before any zoning changes are even considered, Salt Lake City needs to have a comprehensive plan in place to protect the Great Salt Lake, its wetlands and ecosystems,” commenter Lisa Mountain said. “This project displaces residents of the west side who are already disproportionately affected by environmental problems.”

The planning commission forwarded the Northpoint Small Area Plan to the City Council with a favorable recommendation, but the city’s elected representatives have yet to weigh in.

With that in mind, the commission voted 6-1 to shelve the zoning amendment request until the City Council makes a decision about the plan and Northpoint’s future.