Public’s views on Utah’s inland port will help ‘shape’ the project, officials say

Months of listening to Utahns about their views on a controversial international trading hub planned for 16,000 acres in northwestern Salt Lake County reveal “widespread confusion” about the agency overseeing it, fears about the project’s possible impacts on air quality and wildlife and concerns over transparency.

Jack Hedge, the newly appointed executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board, said these findings will help “shape” the board’s policy discussions and ultimately determine how the project moves forward.

But “getting the outcomes that Utahns want” will take more than just the port authority, argued Ari Bruening, chief operating officer for Envision Utah, which prepared and released the report Thursday as part of wider public engagement process on the development.

“The outcomes here are going to be the result of a lot of different actors,” he said. “You have private landowners who are developing under city zoning, you have businesses operating here, trucking companies, railroads. And decisions of all of those people are going to affect air quality, traffic, habitat, wetlands and economic development.”

As part of Envision Utah’s public engagement process, the organization convened dozens of stakeholders and surveyed more than 3,000 Utahns online. Air quality emerged as the No. 1 worry, but there was also “strong concern” about the port’s impacts on wetlands, habitat, wildlife and water quality near the Great Salt Lake and about a perceived lack of transparency on behalf of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board.

“Those three issues have been things that come up again and again as concerns, and we don’t really have answers at this point,” said Deeda Seed, an anti-port activist with the Campaign for Biological Diversity. “[Envision Utah] did a good job articulating what the concerns are and really, I think, showing where there are all these essential questions that need to get answered before we move forward with any of this development.”

Hedge said Thursday that he wasn’t surprised to hear about environmental concerns, which have been a focal point since the project’s beginnings.

“One of the things that did stand out to me, though, was the public’s concerns about the lack of transparency,” he said. “Working to help the public understand what we’re doing and trying to enhance that transparency, I think that’s an important thing for us to focus on going forward. ”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge

Concerns over transparency stem, in part, from the creation of the port, which was passed with little debate on the eve of the final day of the 2018 legislative session. As the board began to form, then-House Speaker Greg Hughes appointed himself to serve on it but had to resign weeks later amid controversy over his property holdings, which were so close to the planned trading hub that they disqualified him from membership. The board’s decision early on to shutter meetings of its three subcommittees to the public also fed accusations that it was operating out of the public eye.

But more than a year and a half after the state formed the inland port board, it’s still unclear how the project will develop — and questions remain “about the types of industries, their business practices, and their obligations to the land and the local communities,” the report notes.

Envision Utah, though, says development in the area “is certain,” noting that roads and other public utilities are already being built out in the area to accommodate a new state prison and development is already occurring due to existing entitlements that precede the port’s creation.

While Seed said she was largely happy with the public engagement process, which activists worried at first would be used as a way to sell the project to Utahns rather than to listen to their concerns, she criticized the idea that development is inevitable.

“There are political decisions that can be made here and there are also human health decisions,” she said, noting also an ongoing lawsuit filed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski challenging the state’s creation of the inland port and the city’s subsequent loss of taxing and zoning authority.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity discusses various locations of the proposed inland port, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Last year, Utah lawmakers took control of a massive portion of land in Salt Lake City's northwest area in an effort to create a distribution hub on the city's northwest side, sparking outrage among residents.

The inland port area, made up mostly of Salt Lake City land, totals about 16,000 acres but includes only about 10,000 acres of buildable land due to protected wetlands and already developed land. Some 92 million square feet of buildings already exist within the area under the port authority’s jurisdiction, the report notes, and an additional 4.2 million square feet were under construction in 2018.

Seed says there needs to be a distinction between the area north of Interstate 80, characterized largely by green space, and the area south of I-80, which has already begun to develop.

“This area is not monolithic,” she said. “The open space north of I-80 really needs to be treated in a different way because it’s land that’s never been developed before and it’s next to critical migratory bird habitat at a time when we’ve lost, scientists say, over 3 billion birds in the last 30 years. We need to be really careful about how we develop next to these areas.”

Activists called last month for the Legislature to fund a health impact assessment of the development to better understand its ramifications. On Thursday, Seed said she’d also like to see comprehensive land planning based on a wildlife habitat analysis and stormwater pollution planning.

The Envision Utah report presents five scenarios for developing the area, including one in which the port board does nothing (though the area would likely still develop in line with the existing plans of landowners) and another in which the port board focuses solely on economic development.

Seed said there needs to be more study before her group, Stop the Polluting Port, would endorse any scenario over anothe, but she favors the one that focuses on the port authority “utilizing the tax differential and other tools to protect as much land north of I-80 as legally possible to prevent development.”

Hedge said each scenario will go back to the public for “revetting” before the board decides on a direction to move the project forward.

Envision Utah will present its report to the 11-member Utah Inland Port Authority Board at a meeting planned next Thursday — the first since its June meeting was disrupted by protesters and an August working group meeting held at a police precinct was shut down by fire marshals.

Hedge noted that final plans for how to move the project forward are still “quite a ways away” and welcomed the public to continue providing feedback on the project, including at that meeting.