County Council sides with Salt Lake City, will ask governor to veto inland port plan

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams delivers the state of county address in the council chambers Tuesday Feb. 13. Salt Lake County council, behind, listens in.

Salt Lake City won unanimous support from the Salt Lake County Council Tuesday in its push for the governor to reject a planned trade authority that would have ultimate land use control over one-third of the city as well as first dibs on all area tax revenue.

In off-agenda remarks at a regular meeting, a majority of the county council indicated they would support a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert drafted by Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw asking for the governor’s veto. Herbert has thus far said he plans to approve the legislation.

“As a good local partner to Salt Lake City, we should ask the governor to veto that bill,” Bradshaw told his colleagues Tuesday, asking for their support.

The bill before the governor, SB234, would create a standalone authority to develop and then manage a trade facility located in northwest Salt Lake City. That entity, with jurisdiction over thousands of acres, would permit inbound and outbound overseas goods to bypass coastal ports of entry, such as those in Oakland and Long Beach, Calif., and be processed for import/export, shipping and transport locally.

All governments and other stakeholders potentially affected by the proposal endorse the concept of a commerce-driving inland port. Proponents point to the commercial and economic impact the trade facility promises to bring to the state. But opponents of the state plan characterize it as blatant overreach that usurps local control and sets a precedent that threatens the autonomy of all localities in Utah.

Opponents also object to creating an unelected board vested with broad tax and zoning powers but unaccountable to voters. And they cite the lack of transparency behind the bill’s adoption by the Legislature: The final version was hastily approved with last-minute amendments that few lawmakers saw and with virtually no debate or discussion on the second-to-last night of the session.

“I think ultimately the state could have accomplished its goal going through the regular process that fully involved the communities that are going to be most impacted,” Bradshaw said at the meeting Tuesday.

Those comments mirror some of Salt Lake City’s concerns. The city has pursued its own master plan for developing its mostly-vacant northwest quadrant, including plans for a port facility similar to what has been proposed, but managed by the city, perhaps under contract with the state. In addition to losing local control and tax dollars, city officials fear their existing plans for the area will be disrupted or die outright.

Salt Lake City’s push for a veto also has the support of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which represents and supports local governments in Utah. Writing to Herbert Friday, the league called the proposal “nothing short of a state takeover of a swath of Salt Lake City without the city’s consent, which also creates irreparable legal, taxation, and policy precedents.”

“We believe signing this bill into law will likely result in litigation and in turn delay the development of the shared objective,” members of the league’s governing board wrote.

The measure gives the newly-created authority power to draw unlimited tax revenue from existing taxing entities within its jurisdiction – not only from the city where it would be based, but also from area schools and the county as well.

Further, there are no limits placed on how the authority could spend those dollars, meaning it could siphon revenues potentially earmarked to fund local improvements and spend the money elsewhere.

“It seems to me there’s going to be a lot of companies benefiting,” said County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson. “One hundred percent back to the state or to the authority? What is that? That’s the most illogical concept in the whole thing.”

Bradshaw said he would deliver his letter, signed by all nine council members, to the governor Wednesday morning. Support elsewhere in county government was unclear. County Mayor Ben McAdams declined to comment Tuesday on the port proposal or a possible veto by the governor but said he backed environmental concerns around the project – much of the target area is adjacent to wetlands – as well as “Salt Lake City’s land-use authority.”

“My focus going forward will be to make sure local voices are represented in this process and we make the best of options in front of us,” he said in a statement.

By coincidence Tuesday, Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall appeared before the county lawmakers to enlist their support for lobbying the governor. Mendenhall’s counterpart, County Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton, told her she had it.

“Government closest to the people governs best,” Winder said earlier. “Anytime we have a body that’s trying to strip land use authority from a local municipality, I have grave concerns.”