Rural Utah counties seek a slice of the state’s inland port development, while a new bill in the Legislature reignites concerns by Salt Lake City

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of various Salt Lake points of interest including the proposed inland port area. Salt Lake Tribune, downtown, capitol, North Salt Lake.

While many Salt Lake City residents have expressed opposition to the inland port, a massive development planned for the city’s westernmost side, a number of rural counties approached the board overseeing the area’s development with a different outlook on Wednesday.

They want the Inland Port Authority Board to shift from focus on that single site to a multisite model — and they promised development-ready parcels of land and willing communities behind them if the port brought a hub to their areas.

“We can be the stars [in an inland port constellation] that can kind of move things out of Salt Lake County and help clean your air, help your traffic and give jobs to help the governor’s 25,000 jobs initiative and help people that are struggling,” Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers told the board after a presentation from the Utah Association of Counties.

Commissioners from Tooele, Weber and Millard counties also spoke in favor of inland port development coming to their areas.

A bill filed late Tuesday in the Utah Legislature that looks to expand the scope of the inland port — and that would prohibit any city from bringing a legal challenge against the future development — would support this concept, said House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, a member of the inland port board and the bill’s sponsor.

“The bill looks to introduce a hub-and-spoke model, the hub being Salt Lake and then a spoke may be an additional port site in Tooele or in Weber or in Box Elder or in Carbon County or Uintah County,” Gibson told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. “Wherever a county may want to participate within the inland port.”

HB433 would allow the Inland Port Authority Board, which oversees the inland port development, to expand the project beyond its current boundaries if the board received written consent from the governmental body of the new area or from the private landowner, according to the proposal.

Advocates of the model argue it would improve air quality, bring high-paying jobs to overlooked communities and leverage the statewide transportation network to disperse the impact of emissions and traffic problems.

“Why would we want to bring coal from Carbon County into Salt Lake when we could just ship it to where it’s produced?” said Gibson, R-Mapleton. “Oil and gas in Vernal, hay, agriculture products that may be in the more rural areas, whatever it’s going to be, be able to import and export things from those sites as opposed to being in Salt Lake. It reduces air pollution, reduces traffic, reduces the need to come in and out of Salt Lake.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Inland Port Authority board members Francis Gibson and Nicole Cottle confer during a board meeting, Sept. 26, 2018. Before the Inland Port board met Wednesday, a coalition of community, environmental and civic organizations have raised a separate transparency issue, noting that the group’s proposed half-page budget lacks specificity. The coalition wants to see the board acknowledge concern within the community, provide more details about its budget and fund an investigation into potential environmental harms from development of the port.

Opponents of Utah’s inland port, which has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project, have worried it will worsen air quality and damage the Great Salt Lake’s already fragile ecosystem, and the results of an ongoing survey the board is conducting has shown environmental impacts are among the top concerns for residents.

Members of the Inland Port Authority’s 11-member board seemed supportive of the hub-and-spoke idea on Wednesday.

“Our main purpose and concern has been air quality and the congestion and the impact of [the development on] air quality,” said Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who serves as the vice chairman of the inland port board. “It’s so refreshing to hear other counties say, ‘Let’s bring this here; let’s look out for more jobs in rural Utah.’ And I am in support of that. We know that there are rural counties that need job growth, that they need the job creation.”

Gibson’s bill, which has not yet been assigned to a committee, also seeks several changes to the port board’s policy on tax incentives. It would extend the period of time in which the board could capture 100 percent of the property tax growth for an additional 15 years beyond the 25 years previously laid out in statute. The proposal would also allow the authority to capture half of all sales taxes collected from transactions involving construction materials transported from outside the state and then delivered within a port authority project area.

The authority board adopted its own property tax differential use policy at its meeting on Wednesday.

‘Another giant step backward’

Perhaps the most controversial provision in Gibson’s bill is its prohibition against challenges to “the creation, existence, funding, powers, project areas or duties of the Utah Inland Port Authority” and the use of public money to bring forward any legal challenges.

Gibson said he’s still negotiating with the Salt Lake City Council on this point.

“That piece may actually come out of the bill before we’re done," Gibson said. "I guess my point is probably I wouldn’t read a lot into that yet, so that piece is still to be negotiated.”

Lawmakers unveiled and passed the bill creating the inland port on 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s westernmost area late on the eve of the final day of last year’s legislative session. The city fought the bill, protesting state overreach, loss of millions of dollars in tax revenues and a worrisome precedent for future state land grabs.

“We have significant points of disagreement on the inland port bill, but Majority Leader Gibson has committed to working through our concerns," Salt Lake City Council Chair Charlie Luke said in a written statement. "We’re encouraged by the open dialogue, and hopeful that we can come to a reasonable and productive solution.”

While the City Council has been involved with lawmakers in finding a compromise on the inland port development, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has been less amenable.

She told residents last September that she expects the legislation that created the inland port may face a legal challenge. The council has banned Biskupski from filing a lawsuit over the development unless she first obtains the body’s permission.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, the mayor expressed a number of concerns with the bill, which she called an attempt to “incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature’s will under the cover of cooperation.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski gives her State of the City address at East High School in Salt Lake City on Thursday Jan. 17, 2019.

“Rather than seriously address the significant issues of transparency, environmental impact, and respect for local control, the bill released today reinforces the worst parts of the original legislation,” she said. “This bill effectively creates a government entity, not only unaccountable to the community, but immune from judicial scrutiny, closing the courtroom door to local communities.”

Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning government watchdog group, and Deeda Seed, a community activist with the Coalition for Port Reform, also spoke against the bill on Wednesday.

“Taking away the ability of localities to basically sue over things that might happen with the inland port that they find objectionable, that’s deeply alarming," Seed told The Salt Lake Tribune, "especially in the context of how often they’ve told us recently, ‘Trust us; we’ll work with you.’ And this just seems like another giant step backward and really calls into question whether they’re sincere about building relationships with the Salt Lake City community in particular.”

Chase Thomas, the executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, said in a written statement that Gibson’s proposal makes a “bad process even worse.” And during public comment at the board’s meeting Wednesday, several residents also raised concerns around the bill.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who worked on the original inland port legislation, told The Tribune on Wednesday that he was not aware of Gibson’s bill.

“I don’t know what they’re doing,” said Stevenson, R-Layton. “I became detached from that process about a year ago.”

But Sen. Derek Kitchen, who served on the Salt Lake City Council until his election to the Senate this year, said there are “clear red flags” in Gibson proposal, such as its restriction on litigation and its changes to administrative fees.

Kitchen said he and other city representatives will be meeting with Gibson this week and said he hopes to again strike a balance that both the city and Legislature can stand behind.

“I think we can make something work out of this,” Kitchen said.

Only one other bill proposed during this session has related to the inland port so far. Sen. Luz Escamilla’s SB144, which looks to monitor the development’s impacts on air and water quality and any increases in the level of sound and light, is now before the Senate.

The Utah Inland Port Authority will host its second public forum to gather input from residents on the development on Thursday at Franklin Elementary School in Salt Lake City from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this report