New inland port report says traffic and warehouses are coming to northwest Salt Lake City regardless — but argues the development could be greener under state leadership.

(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.

Opponents of a massive distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side have long raised concerns about the future development’s possible impacts on the environment, traffic and air quality.

But the organization tasked with leading public outreach on the project argued Wednesday that the area will develop with or without the direction of the Inland Port Authority Board — and that it’s possible it could actually be more sustainable under state control.

“The authority may have the right and power to do things with respect to air quality that is normally preempted by the federal government and the state and the counties can’t do,” Robert Grow, CEO of Envision Utah, told the board at its monthly meeting. “Like regulating the kind of trucks that come into this place.”

Grow’s comments came Wednesday during a presentation from the organization on a baseline scenario report of how the inland port area would develop if the board, which is tasked with overseeing the development, did nothing. And as the number of opponents during public comment seemed only to grow, his remarks also represent a larger shift in the board’s rhetoric around the development.

Deeda Seed, an activist with the anti-port Coalition for Port Reform, said that while this new framing is likely an effort to assuage environmental concerns and dampen cries to kill the port altogether, she’s not convinced it’s an accurate portrayal of the issues at hand.

“I think the port board is overstating the inevitability [of this project],” she said. “It’s a common tactic that’s used by developers to say, ‘Well, it’s already happening but if you’re nice to us we’ll give you a few green trucks.' That’s basically what they’re saying.”

Salt Lake City has always planned for this location to become an inland port and has zoned much of the area for light manufacturing, Envision Utah noted — meaning the land already has a development framework.

“I think there’s an impression in the public and others that if we do a scenario that we would traditionally call the ‘baseline’ or the ‘do nothing’ scenario that means nothing happens out there,” Grow said. “... This area already has general planning in place, already has zoning in place, already has entitlements in place.’”

If the port board left the area alone, there’s a potential the land could develop with 90 percent of the area covered with buildings — the equivalent of 2,138 Walmart Supercenters on 382,700 square feet, according to data provided by Envision Utah. That’s unlikely, said Ari Bruening, president of Envision Utah. But even 40 or 60 percent coverage would generate an estimated 685,487 to 1,028,231 daily vehicle trips, meaning more tailpipe emissions even when accounting for cleaner transportation technology.

“This area is going to develop,” Bruening said. “The question is how do we want it to develop?”

After the presentation, Chris Conabee, the interim executive director of the authority, said the board is uniquely positioned to mitigate problems associated with growth, using proper planning techniques and working with experts and a slew of planned working groups.

“Our green port on its worst day and our port on its worst day will look a lot better than what that zoning looks like right now because we’ll be coordinated and collaborative,” he said. “We’ll have an opportunity to address [problems]. And that’s not the fault of Salt Lake City. That’s not the fault of anyone in this room. But the opportunity in front of us is to move that forward, so I feel like our best days are ahead of us.”

Envision Utah, which is operating with a $100,000 contract from the port authority, plans to give presentations on several other scenarios prior to the development of the business plan for the area.