Utah’s Inland Port Authority Board wants to ease environmental concerns

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This aerial photo from June 2018 shows where the inland port will be built.

In the upcoming state legislative session, Utah Inland Port Authority Executive Director Jack Hedge wants to codify the state’s commitment to sustainable development and give cities back a measure of their land use authority within the boundaries of the project area.

The changes, identified by inland port staff, could help assuage fears from environmentalists who worry about the massive development project’s impact on air quality and ease tensions with Salt Lake City leaders, who have felt trampled ever since Utah lawmakers passed the bill creating the inland port over their protests of state overreach and loss of their zoning and taxing authority.

“In concept, I think those [amendments] are positive and moving in the right direction,” said Salt Lake City Sen. Luz Escamilla, who represents the district that will be most affected by the inland port.

The proposed modifications are part of a broader “clean up” the authority is seeking nearly two years after state lawmakers passed the bill creating the inland port and just months after Hedge came on board to push the development forward.

“Now that we’ve gotten going here, [there are] things we’ve found that are a little unclear in the legislation or need to be tweaked, where language wasn’t maybe specific enough to give us clarity,” Hedge said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune at the authority’s new offices downtown.

Legislation containing such amendments would likely be carried by House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, who sits on the Inland Port Authority Board, Hedge said. Gibson, R-Mapleton, has not yet filed a bill related to the port and said Tuesday he was not available for comment on whether he would sponsor any or all of the items proposed by inland port staff.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge in Salt Lake City, Aug. 15, 2019.

Gibson has, however, expressed an openness in the past to continued conversations about how to address the concerns of city leaders.

“I think I would sit down and look and see where the pinch points are and what’s important to them and where that needs to happen,” he said in an interview with The Tribune last year.

The loss of its land use authority within the inland port boundaries has been one of the most significant issues for Salt Lake City, which sued the state in an effort to regain control over the development area in question. Though a 3rd District judge ruled against the city on the issue earlier this month, newly inaugurated Mayor Erin Mendenhall has promised to appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.

The proposed changes by inland port staff would not completely restore cities’ control over land in the port’s jurisdictional area and would preserve the board’s power to act as an appeal body for any land-use decisions made within its boundaries in Magna, Salt Lake City and West Valley City. But Hedge does want tweaks that make it clear those municipalities retain ultimate land-use authority, he said.

“The old legislation gave people the impression that we could change the city’s zoning, we could change the city’s land use plan,” he said. “And we can’t.”

Hedge said he has shared the proposed legislative changes with Mendenhall, whom he’s met with twice, once after the election and again after she took office.

“We shared this with the mayor and her staff and they’re looking at it and they’re going to give us their comments,” he said.

Mendenhall told The Tribune that the city is in the process of “coordinating” its legislative strategy but offered little insight into her thoughts about specific proposals — including changes to land use authority — or any concerns the city has.

“We’ve appreciated meeting with the Inland Port Authority and some additional stakeholders and we’re optimistic that we can reach a resolution on some of the key sticking points,” the mayor said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Our priority is ensuring this is a development that mitigates any negative impact on our environment, particularly our air quality, and ensures the protection of environmentally sensitive lands,” the statement continued. “We’d also need a greater assurance that Salt Lake City taxpayers will not bear the brunt of development and public services costs in the port authority area.”

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said the council has not yet had a chance to discuss the legislation as a group but has asked city departments to review the language, “particularly the portions dealing with land use,” and to include that information in the council’s briefing on the issue at its meeting next week.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Erin Mendenhall addresses the crowd after being sworn in as Salt Lake City mayor during inauguration ceremonies at Salt Lake City Hall on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

Sustainability and representation

Amid concerns about the environmental impacts of what’s been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project, Hedge also wants to change the legislative intent of the bill creating the Utah Inland Port Authority Board “to be more clear that what we’re doing here needs to be done in a sustainable way,” he said.

Clarifying that aim would codify the board’s long-vocalized commitment to incentivize the development of a “green port” through tax breaks — a message Hedge said is important to send not only to residents but also to businesses that may be interested in locating in the port area.

“If you’re a manufacturing company, if you’re producing products and you want to be at the best place where you can shorten your supply chains and do that in a place where you can meet all of your sustainability goals as a business, this is the place to be,” he said.

Legislative intent matters, said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City — and it could set some minds at ease if the goals, purposes and values of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board were more clearly stated.

“I would welcome that kind of language,” he said, but added that the “devil’s in the details” and that a commitment to sustainability would be best backed up by specific language outlining how, exactly, the board would reach those goals.

“It’s one thing to [have], say, general, conceptual, idealistic sort of aspirational language and it’s another thing to have specifics that the inland port authority is required to carry out and do that are at odds with the aspirational language,” he said in an interview.

Escamilla has filed a bill she hopes will start to outline more specific environmental requirements. The language is not yet public and she was tight-lipped on details, since she’s still seeking consensus on some of its elements, but Escamilla did say her legislation will look to address the handling of construction waste as part of future development.

The state senator also wants to see changes to the composition of the 11-member Inland Port Authority Board, which is made up of appointees from various government bodies, including the House and Senate, Salt Lake County and the executive director of the Department of Transportation.

Hedge’s proposed changes don’t call for any growth to that board but include at least one change to the board’s makeup — a technical amendment that would give the seat now held by someone from the airport board to the airport’s executive director in an effort to bring more “technical expertise” to the body.

That seat was previously occupied by Lara Fritts, Salt Lake City’s former economic development director, who was appointed to the board by the chairman of the Salt Lake City airport advisory board at former Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s request.

Salt Lake City has only one elected official on the board, while the Salt Lake City School District, which estimates it is the largest taxing entity affected by the port, has no representation.

“Just having one elected official from the city is not enough, especially when most of the inland port development will happen in Salt Lake City,” Escamilla said, noting that she would like to see the city’s mayor have a seat on the board. “I would like to see more changes there and maybe my legislation will address some of those.”