Utah Inland Port Authority approves two new projects in Tooele County

Supporters say the light industrial developments will diversify the economy, while opponents worry about impacts to water demand, wetlands and the Great Salt Lake.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Railroad tracks by the Burmester Road exit off Interstate 80 near Grantsville, on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, near the proposed Tooele Valley inland port project approved this week. Port Authority officials say projects in the county will help transition freight from trucks to train, improving air quality and traffic, but opponents worry about increased pollution and impacts to Great Salt Lake wetlands.

Tooele County is home to Utah’s two newest inland port projects.

The Utah Inland Port Authority, or UIPA, board unanimously approved the Tooele Valley and Twenty Wells port projects Tuesday. Officials from the county and Grantsville City stressed the importance of the port’s support in bringing manufacturing and logistics businesses to the county, along with sources of local, well-paying jobs. But opponents continue to raise concerns about impacts to air quality, traffic, water supplies and wetlands on the Great Salt Lake.

UIPA representatives say their project sites popping up across the state will help both Utah’s environment and economy by supporting more rail infrastructure.

“We can’t continue to put everything on trucks in the state of Utah, this trend is going in the wrong direction,” said UIPA executive director Ben Hart. “Trucks don’t go everywhere in the state, so economically you’re disadvantaged [and] they put a lot of crap in the air, quite frankly.”

Tooele leaders emphasized the importance of creating local employment and a diversified tax base. Around 75% of the county’s adult residents commute elsewhere for work, said Tooele County Council member Jared Hamner.

“It is imperative that parents, along with children, are able to eat dinner together to discuss how their days went for mental health,” Hamner said. “When you have parents that can’t get home because of traffic or weather-related incidents, that’s something to consider also.”

During the port authority’s board meeting in Tooele approving the project Tuesday, local residents raised concerns about the projects appearing as all but decided since at least October, regardless of community feedback.

Tooele inland port locations and future plans

Port project sites — other than the first one created in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant in 2018 — require an invitation and approval from local leadership.

The Tooele County Council passed a resolution in favor of the Tooele Valley Port Project in April, although the site has grown in size from 140 acres to 243 acres.

The Tooele Valley project is located directly south of the Great Salt Lake, off the Burmester exit of Interstate 80. Developer Zenith Bolinder owns the most land in the project area, totaling about 143 acres. The Utah State Trust Lands Administration owns an 80-acre parcel, which includes a significant amount of wetlands.

The Grantsville City Council approved its own port site, now called the Twenty Wells project, in September. It shrunk from the 1,835 acres proposed in October to an area covering 498 acres. Companies affiliated with the Romney Group own the majority of those parcels.

Josh Romney, son of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, is president of the Romney Group and is currently developing the Lakeview Business Park, a warehouse complex he intends to serve with rail.

The Twenty Wells project does not have any wetlands, according to an environmental assessment conducted by UIPA. But an abandoned rail spur Savage Tooele Railroad intends to rebuild to connect with the Lakeview Business Park runs directly through Great Salt Lake wetlands.

UIPA’s project area plan notes its intention to stay “vigilant” of impacts to wetlands in the area and says it will not support any development or rail lines that destroy those ecosystems.

Members of Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake and residents of Tooele County held yet another rally and protest Tuesday ahead of the UIPA board’s vote.

Resident Miranda Smith shared concerns about heavy truck traffic, pollution and noise through the county that’s already impacting quality of life and worried the industries UIPA plans to lure will make things worse.

“The people who propose these projects do not live in our county,” Smith said. “They don’t experience the negative effects we receive.”

Lynn de Freitas, executive director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, spoke about Utah’s insatiable appetite for growth and water use, which has shrunk the lake’s elevation to alarming and historic lows.

“The development of critical wetlands adjacent to the lake pose a more subtle, but equally significant threat,” de Freitas said. “This development is devouring these important natural resources at an alarming rate.”

UIPA notes water constraints in the project plans for both the Tooele Valley and Twenty Wells ports, especially with the county’s booming growth. It recommends both sites create a strategic plan for water.

But UIPA does not have any regulatory teeth or land use authority.

Instead, the quasi-governmental agency creates financial incentives for developers.

It collects 75% of the boost to property tax revenue generated by construction in the project areas. It expects to receive $54 million at the Tooele Valley site and $85 million at the Twenty Wells site over 25 years. It can supplement those funds with infrastructure bank dollars appropriated by the Utah Legislature.

UIPA intends to use its revenue in Tooele to attract companies focused on light industrial, manufacturing, distribution and data centers in both project areas, according to the plans. Some of those industries, including data centers, traditionally use large volumes of water. But UIPA staff assured board members they’d target businesses using less resource-intensive technologies.

The port board also adopted a wetlands policy last month which dedicates 1% of its tax differential revenue to wetland mitigation for port sites with wetlands that lie in the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake watershed.

For the Tooele Valley site, that would amount to $540,000 over 25 years.

The wetlands policy excludes UIPA’s main 16,000-acre northwest quadrant jurisdictional area in Salt Lake City, which lies directly south of the Great Salt Lake.