Inland port proposal near Great Salt Lake grows from 900 acres to nearly 9,000

A massive industrial development is slated for an area in Weber County with wetlands and open space vital to the lake’s ecological health, but port supporters vow minimal impact.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber County property slated for an inland port on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.

The Weber County Commission has mushroomed its proposed inland port project size from 900 acres to nearly 9,000, all on land directly adjacent to the Great Salt Lake or the Weber River, one of the lake’s largest tributaries.

The proposed West Weber Inland Port now has two areas. The 349-acre Weber Bend Zone sits on the banks of the Weber River, near farmland and rural residential property. The 8,618-acre Little Mountain Zone borders the lake shore and is nestled between the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area and the Harold Crane Waterfowl Management Area — wetland complexes that play a vital role in supporting the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem.

A draft area plan and budget posted by the Utah Inland Port Authority shows several large areas of wetlands in the Little Mountain Zone, along with wetlands on the Weber River in the Weber Bend Zone.

“It’s completely contrary to what we’re trying to do to preserve Great Salt Lake and its wetlands,” said one Huntsville resident during the commission’s public meeting Tuesday, where the new port boundaries were unanimously approved.

Commissioners fielded about an hour of public comment, mostly in opposition to the inland port proposal.

“Maybe this project is not the death of the Great Salt Lake or the surrounding area wetlands,” a Brigham City resident said, “but it is certainly one step closer.”

The Utah Inland Port Authority board has not approved the port project, but is scheduled to discuss the matter on Jan. 10. Both the port authority and Weber County posted notice of the expanded port project the morning of Friday, Dec. 30, just before the New Year holiday weekend.

“I don’t understand the rush,” said one Ogden resident during the commission meeting. “I don’t understand why this was announced so late and is being voted on right now. It makes me very uncomfortable.”

Commissioners retorted that they approved the smaller 900-acre port site in August and had little public feedback.

“We understand the issues involved with this,” Commissioner Gage Froerer said, “from the wetlands through transportation, air quality, et cetera. Those have been discussed in quite a bit of detail.

But Weber County property records show a developer went on a land buying spree in western Weber County the month after commissioners approved the original port project. The entire 349-acre Weber Bend Zone is owned by “PCC LAND LLC,” according to parcel records, and the property purchases were all recorded in September.

PPC LAND shares the same address as the Gardner Group, a prominent real estate developer. The Utah Inland Port Authority also pays an entity affiliated with Gardner $120,000 a month for a vacant tract of land. Another Gardner affiliate owns 110 acres within the Spanish Fork inland port project approved over the summer. The developer purchased those parcels last year.

“You’re taking ... this pristine land,” a Davis County resident said at Tuesday’s meeting, “[and] turning it into another parking lot for trucks, with developers who are going to be subsidized.”

Utah Inland Port Authority Executive Director Ben Hart, however, explained the property tax collected from port projects does not go to developers.

“We pay for regional and other types of infrastructure,” Hart said, “that help to support an entire area in balance with the natural environment.”

He also denied that turning western Weber County into a warehouse and industrial zone would harm the Great Salt Lake. The port authority recently adopted a policy that directs 1% of the tax revenue collected in project areas toward wetland mitigation.

The port authority projects it will collect $343 million in property tax increment from the Weber project over 25 years, meaning $3.43 million will be available for wetland protection over the same period.

“This is actually going to be a benefit to the area,” Hart said.

Chris Roybal, executive director of the Northern Utah Economic Alliance — and one of the only other commenters to speak in favor of the port — said an analysis at a 200-acre “core” of the Western Weber Inland Port site found no wetlands, although he did not specify where the study was conducted.

“There are certainly wetlands within the surrounding regions,” Roybal said, “but not on that industrial property.”

Longtime residents of the area, however, denied the claim.

Weber County staff, however, pointed out that although much of the western side of the county is rural farmland and open space with bird habitat, it has long been zoned for industrial use. Compass Minerals and its vast evaporation pond complex operates in the area, as does Westinghouse Electric Company, a manufacturer of military and nuclear fuel industry products.

Economic Development Director Stephanie Russell said the county intends to research and build renewable energy projects in the proposed port.

“This isn’t about bringing a bunch of pollution to this area, this is about smart development,” Russell said. “We’re taking a very proactive economic and environmentally friendly approach.”

And any landowner in that part of the county can already convert property to a warehouse or manufacturing hub, regardless of whether the inland port project gets approved, explained Charlie Ewert, the county’s principal planner.

“That decision on whether or not industrial uses out west can occur,” Ewert said, “has already been made.”

But Deeda Seed, senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Gardner’s flurry of land purchases show inland port projects incentivize and accelerate industrial development before there is a market need for it.

“This is taxpayers subsidizing developers to fast track growth,” Seed said, “in an area that is so environmentally critical now for so many reasons.”

Seed spent the holiday weekend sending emails and sounding the alarm about the West Weber project, which she called the most ecologically egregious port proposal so far.

“It’s a generational decision,” Seed said, “and it’s going to have enormous consequences.”