Salt Lake City’s inland port lawsuit thrown out by judge

A judge in Utah’s 3rd District Court ruled Wednesday that the state’s takeover of a large chunk of land in Salt Lake City’s northwest side did not run afoul of the state constitution as the city had argued.

The decision leaves intact the Utah Inland Port Authority Board’s power over land and tax decisions on approximately 16,000 acres located primarily in the capital city and is a major blow to opponents of the inland port project, a distribution hub that environmentalists worry will increase emissions and worsen the state’s already poor air quality.

During a 2 1/2-hour hearing in November, the city had argued that the state’s takeover of its land represented an illegal land grab. The state in turn pushed back on claims that the port authority board — created to oversee development in the project area — is a special commission and that it interferes with municipal funds or land to conduct city functions. Attorneys also contended that the project would serve a statewide rather than municipal function.

The judge found the latter argument more convincing and rejected the city’s claims on all counts.

“Whether wise or unwise, the Utah Inland Port Authority Act is sufficiently infused with a state purpose that it does not run afoul of the 'Ripper Clause’ in the Utah Constitution, which prohibits the Legislature from delegating purely municipal authority to ‘special commissions,’” Judge James Blanch wrote in a 51-page opinion. “Nor does the Act violate the other provisions of the Utah Constitution the City cites. For these reasons, the court must grant summary judgment in favor of the State and against the City.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called the decision a “disappointment” but told reporters during a briefing at City Hall Wednesday afternoon that she planned to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

“It’s our responsibility to our residents in Salt Lake City and really to cities throughout the state of Utah who will be impacted by this decision to get clarity from a higher authority," she said.

Mendenhall, who took the oath of office in a ceremony Monday, said the administration, council and city’s legal team met Tuesday to begin “strategic coordination” on the inland port moving into the upcoming state legislative session and was glad to have the judge’s decision sooner rather than later.

“I think that the complete nature of that decision will actually enable us to have a more clear strategy going into the legislative session than a divided decision might have,” she said.

Identifying a legal strategy moving forward will be the first test for Mendenhall’s new city attorney, Katherine Lewis, whose appointment was approved by the City Council Tuesday evening.

For the lawsuit’s defendants, Wednesday’s decision was seen as a major win in advancing a project that’s been dogged in recent months by legal uncertainty, public opposition and protests.

Jack Hedge, the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, said in a statement that he was “pleased” with the ruling and pledged to continue working with city and county partners to push the inland port forward in an environmentally sensitive way.

“The Port Authority continues to be laser focused on completing a strategic business plan that aligns our mission with a revolutionizing global logistics system for the next generation," he wrote. "Regardless of today’s outcome, we will continue to promote sustainable and smart logistics investment through partnerships, policies and programs as an entity that serves to insert the values of the public into the process.”

The Governor’s Office, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, also praised the ruling, calling it a “thoughtful analysis."

The outcome of this case will likely set a precedent for land use and the division of state and municipal powers that echoes beyond Salt Lake City Hall. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who brought the lawsuit, told The Salt Lake Tribune late last year that she worried a judgment siding with the state could set a dangerous precedent that it could “go into any community and decide to draw lines around a certain territory of that city, whether it’s developed or not developed.”

Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, reiterated those concerns in an interview Wednesday and noted that he and his team were still reading through the decision.

The inland port was created through legislation in 2018 that passed with little debate on the eve of the final day of the legislative session. It was later amended to reflect some — but not most — of the issues raised by Salt Lake City.

Nearly two years after the state approved the project, it’s still unclear how the port will develop since the board has yet to unveil a business plan, which is expected sometime this spring.

In the meantime, activists have worried about how the project would affect wildlife and the environment in the area near the Great Salt Lake, a fragile ecosystem and globally significant hotspot for migratory birds. They called recently on the Legislature to fund a health impact assessment study to evaluate the potential consequences of the project.

Deeda Seed, an inland port opponent with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Wednesday that she disagreed with the judge’s ruling but noted that this litigation only addressed some of the issues activists have with the project.

“There are obviously many others that are not addressed by the litigation that may be addressed under other litigation,” she said.

Those legal challenges will likely take time to materialize. But until then, she argued that state residents are already facing “real, on the ground consequences” as a result of early construction on what will someday be a massive trading port.

“This project has the potential to seriously damage public health through the air quality emissions and you can go on and on with the climate change and green house gas emissions aspect of it and harms to wetlands,” she said. “We’re on the precipice of irredeemable harm.”