Utah Inland Port fast-tracks bid to acquire LDS Church land for rail operations

Officials are vague on the details behind flexing its condemnation clout.

The Utah Inland Port Authority board voted Thursday to initiate condemnation proceedings on private land officials say is needed for future rail facilities.

Siting a rail hub on the targeted parcels, totaling 41 acres, would help push train traffic away from Salt Lake City neighborhoods, according to the port Executive Director Jack Hedge.

Officials did not provide any material to the public documenting how its acquisition would improve rail flow around the controversial logistics complex under development in the northwest quadrant of Utah’s most-populous city.

The land, located at the 5600 West exit of Interstate 80, is owned by Suburban Land Reserve Inc., a real estate arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Officials repeatedly emphasized that the Utah-based faith intends to sell the land voluntarily. They said a condemnation action is needed to expedite the process, ensure the port is first in line to acquire the land, and preserve opportunities for federal grant funding.

“This is really the beginning of the process, and the process is intended to preserve that public interest in securing this rail property,” Hedge told the board. “This is not an acrimonious action on our part, but this is how a public agency preserves that public need.”

Documents released to the public Friday described the property as nine parcels at “6 S. 5600 West.” No information was provided disclosing what is on or near it, or its approximate value.

A spokesperson for the church’s Suburban Land Reserve confirmed the pending purchase Friday afternoon, saying that it owns 41 acres in a light industrial area at that location.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trucks carrying shipping containers move in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal in 2021.

“Having no plans to develop the parcel, [Suburban Land Reserve] has been offering the property for sale over the past two years,” spokesperson Dale Bills wrote in an email. “In a competitive marketing process, the Utah Inland Port Authority was the successful bidder among several interested parties who made offers on the land.”

No purchase price was mentioned.

Salt Lake County records show the church owns 44.79 acres at that address — valued at $3.5 million.

The board’s action frustrated several members of the public, who spoke out at Thursday’s meeting against what they view as a lack of transparency around the deal and other port activities.

“We really have no context for understanding your discussion on your three resolution items,” Deeda Seed, an anti-port activist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “With regard to this rail project, we really have no information about what it is and when Director Hedge uses words like ‘public need’ and ‘public purpose,’ and the public doesn’t know what you’re talking about, it’s becoming absurd.”

Board member Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the condemnation action was nothing unusual nor anything warranting coverage in the news media.

“This is a normal way of doing business,” Stevenson said. “We’re not going out and taking anyone’s property.”

The resolution that Stevenson voted on minutes later authorized the Utah Inland Port Authority to exercise its power of eminent domain to secure the “acquisition and immediate occupancy” of the targeted land.

Hedge said the port’s main aim with the acquisition is to lessen community impacts associated with increased rail traffic arising from port operations.

“This piece of property in particular provides approach for enhanced rail circulation in and out of the inland port,” he said. “This piece of property will provide for trains that today come in through downtown Salt Lake and cross through the western portions of Salt Lake City, through the neighborhoods of Rose Park and others.”

Port authority ownership would enable its rail partner, Patriot Rail, to push train traffic west of the city and eliminate the need for several at-grade crossings, according to Hedge. The trains thus would arrive and depart more efficiently, with less disruption on city streets.

“It also is the lead into getting trains north of I-80, which is going to be important as that area develops,” Hedge continued, “so that we’re able to provide rail service there in support of manufacturing, which is, again, a state priority.”

With an address just south of the freeway, where there are existing tracks, it is unclear how the envisioned facility would put rail traffic north of the freeway.

The port authority would tap a recent bond offering to cover the parcel’s price, according to the resolution.

Thursday’s board discussion was short on details and at times contradictory. Board members and staffers, for example, said no decision had been made to purchase the property, yet they stressed the need to complete the transaction soon.

Haste is required because Patriot has landed federal grants for the the rail project, according to Hedge.

“So bringing the land to the table, getting it as quickly as possible in hand so they can start development, keeps that grant money available,” he told the board. “If it goes very long, it could put it at risk. If this property were to go to a private entity and then we had to start the process, at that point, we were in real danger of losing those grant dollars.”

— Tribune reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this story.