Beaver County gets an inland port, with Tooele next in line

The port authority has also presented a plan to incentivize wetland protection as its many projects keep cropping up across the state.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wind turbines, solar panels, and hog farms north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Beaver County is the latest Utah community to have an inland port project approved by the port authority. State and local leaders tout it as an investment recognizing the value of rural economies.

The Mineral Mountains Utah Inland Port Project includes four disconnected areas. The Milford Flats Zone encompasses 17,115 acres, including the Milford airport. It also contains and is surrounded by solar and wind farms. The Beaver City Zone covers 2,070 acres, including the city’s airport and wastewater treatment ponds. The Milford Depot Zone contains 445 acres and includes the area’s largest employer — a Smithfield Foods plant which announced plans to mothball most of its operations last year. The Minersville City Zone covers 190 acres, including a dairy operation and farms.

“We’ve struggled,” Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson said at a meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority board Wednesday. “But our roots run deep. And we’re determined to raise our families here.”

The announcement of the Smithfield plant’s closure came as a blow to the county, which impacts jobs supporting 250 residents and their households. The port authority could help attract new big employers with better pay, local leaders said. Pearson, however, acknowledged there are limitations to the types of businesses Beaver County can support.

“We have to be careful who we invite,” Pearson said. “We don’t have a lot of water and those resources, we don’t have a lot of housing.”

The Utah Inland Port Authority, or UIPA, says it can help cities and counties build industrial development and manufacturing zones. It receives 75% of the additional property tax revenue that comes with improvements to the project areas, like new buildings and utility lines. It uses those tax differential funds to provide incentives for businesses and build supporting infrastructure, like rail spurs and affordable housing.

In its Mineral Mountains plan and budget, UIPA forecasts collecting about $40 million in tax differential funds over a 25-year term.

“We’re going to create and have an opportunity to help reinvest fairly significant amounts of money into these project areas,” said UIPA Executive Director Ben Hart. “As we do that we’re going to be doing so in a very disciplined way. It’s not going to be ... to subsidize the private sector.”

UIPA leadership has stressed the importance of improving connectivity to rail and reducing heavy truck traffic across the state as part of its port projects.

Beaver County intends to use its port support to sustain the region’s traditional agriculture and mining-based economy, according to Jen Wakeland, the county’s strategic development director. It also wants to lure tech businesses, advanced manufacturing and additional renewable energy industries.

“Each zone utilizes the individual community strengths to work independently,” Wakefield said, “but contribute to and function as a larger part of the project as a whole.”

Beaver County adopted a resolution inviting UIPA to form a project area in April. Milford City passed a similar resolution in May, and Beaver passed their own in August. The UIPA board unanimously approved the project plan and budget at their meeting Wednesday.

“This is probably the greatest opportunity that I’ve seen come along in my 30-something years of being involved in city politics,” said Milford Mayor Nolan Davis. “Maybe [it can] make something work.”

Mineral Mountains marks the sixth port overseen by UIPA. Other projects include Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, which spurred the port authority’s creation and has a contentious history. There’s also Iron Springs in Iron County, Verk Industrial Park in Spanish Fork, Golden Spike in Box Elder County and Central Utah Agri-Park in Juab County.

Next on the docket are two proposed project areas in Tooele County. Although most areas with disjointed sites, like Mineral Mountains, were presented as a single port area, the locales in Tooele are pitched as separate projects. The UIPA board will decide whether to approve the plans at their next meeting on Nov. 6.

The Tooele Valley Utah Inland Port Project Area includes 162 acres south of the Great Salt Lake at the Burmester exit of Interstate 80. The Grantsville City Inland Port Project Area covers 1,835 acres, including several parcels partly owned by Josh Romney, son of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney. The site is considerably smaller than a 12,000-acre “satellite port” pushed four years ago.

But the Tooele Valley site is surrounded by Great Salt Lake wetlands and the Grantsville property includes plans for a rail spur that could impact several wetlands that support the imperiled lake as well.

“The impacts of this proposed massive industrial development on water quantity and quality are a huge concern as Tooele County relies on wells for water,” members of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition wrote in a news release ahead of UIPA’s meeting this week. “Also, the Tooele Valley is part of the hydrological system that fills the Great Salt Lake, which is in crisis.”

Lake advocates worry about impacts from the port in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, too, along with the proximity of Box Elder County’s ports to Great Salt Lake wetlands and Spanish Fork’s location near Utah Lake wetlands. The next port project up for review, in Weber County, is directly next to one of the largest wetland complexes on the Great Salt Lake.

“The wetlands around the Great Salt Lake are one of our most unique assets here in the state of Utah,” Hart said, adding that UIPA is committed to protecting them.

Staff presented a draft wetlands policy that would commit 1% of the tax differential collected at each project area to incentives that encourage developers to preserve wetlands on their properties. The policy would not apply to Salt Lake City’s port, where UIPA has a separate interlocal agreement with provisions about mitigating impacts to the environment.

“Because we don’t control zoning,” Hart said, “we can’t dictate what happens on these sites, [but] we can try and help guide it and steer it.”

The UIPA board will consider a vote on the wetlands proposal at their meeting next month.