Plans are shaping up for a 12,000-acre satellite inland port in Tooele County

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Romney Group, a private real estate investment company, is pushing for the creation of a 12,000-acre satellite port in Tooele County, which includes Erda. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

With a business plan still months away and no meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board since October, it may appear that progress has stalled on the inland port, a distribution hub development planned for a large chunk of Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

But a series of emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune tells a different story.

The Romney Group, a Salt Lake City-based real estate investment company, began quietly pushing last summer for the creation of a “satellite” inland port on more than 12,000 acres of largely undeveloped land in Tooele County — a proposal that would remake the community west of Salt Lake County but that has largely taken shape outside of public view.

“It’s definitely a red alert alarm kind of situation,” said Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity who worries about the potential environmental implications of the project. “I think [it] should raise alarm bells for every taxpayer in Utah that these kinds of deals are being cooked up in the backroom.”

It’s no secret that Tooele County has been interested in the satellite port concept, which was made possible through legislation last year.

But emails between The Romney Group and Tooele County commissioners, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request, show proponents of the satellite vision are further along than the public knows: The Romney Group has already spoken to and obtained interest from most of the landowners it included in a map of the area sent to port leadership last summer.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

County Commissioner Shawn Milne said conversations about the proposal haven’t trickled into a formal public meeting yet because “we’re at a high level just kind of discussion” point.

He and The Romney Group are interested in the potential benefits that economic development and new jobs could bring to this bedroom community, where a large number of workers commute to Salt Lake County each day, but Milne said the idea would be studied and fully vetted by the community if it were to progress.

“We’re just kind of waving a flag saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to be paid attention to over here,’” he told The Tribune. “We think we’re a viable option.”

Tooele was one of several Utah counties that expressed support early on for the so-called 'hub-and-spoke’ model, in which Salt Lake City would serve as a hub, while other interested communities would represent the spokes — part of an effort to make it easier for communities with exports to clear international customs.

Proponents of that framework argue the model would address some of the biggest concerns environmental advocates have raised in opposition to the project planned for the state’s capital city. It would improve air quality, they say, while bringing good jobs to overlooked communities and leveraging the statewide transportation network to disperse the impact of emissions and traffic problems in Salt Lake County.

Opponents have remained skeptical, arguing that the concept would simply spread negative effects around the state and raising concerns that the spokes would be used to facilitate the transfer of fossil fuels — and they see the Tooele County proposal as no different.

“It has enormous implications for air quality in the Tooele Valley and air quality overall in northern Utah,” Seed said. “These airsheds are all connected.”

Milne said his community would have environmental questions similar to those raised in Salt Lake County but added that he’s “optimistic” any issues could be mitigated.

“We’re not looking to just sell our community down the river in order to get something like the inland port and say, ‘Well, you know, somebody else in another jurisdiction is throwing up some caution about environmental impact or quality-of-life impacts and we won’t,’” he said. “No. It’s definitely not the case. We’re going to have some of the same concerns.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Romney Group, a private real estate investment company, is pushing for the creation of a 12,000-acre satellite port in Tooele County, which includes Erda. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

Undevelopable land?

Whether a satellite port comes to their community or not, Tooele County commissioners anticipate their residents will face impacts from the development of the primary port on approximately 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

If the original inland port concept in Salt Lake City were to come to fruition, “we know we would likely become the bedroom community for such a workforce,” Milne, who serves as the co-chairman of the satellite port working group, told "The County Seat” television program in an October 2019 interview.

That could be a problem for the county’s economy, since providing public services to homes often costs more than residents pay in local taxes, he said. Businesses pay a lot more in tax dollars, “and that’s why we have nice things,” he said on the weekly show.

“It seems like a long overdue opportunity that we have,” Milne added in arguing for his vision of a satellite port coming to Tooele County.

An August 2016 Salt Lake Inland Port Market Assessment, by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, notes that inland ports “rely on warehousing and distribution space in close proximity and rail connections to major seaports,” with industrial parks and rail connections of particular importance.

One of the state’s five largest industrial parks is located in Tooele County: Ninigret Depot, which is 4.5 million square feet, served by rail and just 30 minutes from Salt Lake City International Airport and the Union Pacific Intermodal Hub, Utah’s dominant rail carrier.

The county also has a ready workforce and easy access to the airport that make it an attractive place for growth, though its proximity to Salt Lake County has limited its potential in the past.

Of the 12,000 acres in the proposed development area in Tooele County, The Romney Group — founded by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s son Josh Romney — owns about 1,500 acres. The company has been “the tip of the spear” on the project, Milne said, working to contact the landowners and put together the map.

(Chris Carlson | AP file photo) In this Feb. 7, 2012, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney arrives for an election night rally with his son Josh in Denver.

Anthon Stauffer, the company’s chief investment officer, said he thinks the Tooele Valley would be a good location for the project, which could have a “real benefit” to the community.

Capturing the commuters and keeping them in Tooele County “is going to have an environmental impact” by creating jobs and reducing congestion and emissions, he said. “We basically reverse that commute."

Stauffer told commissioners in a July 8 email that he’d spoken with a representative from each of the parcels identified within the proposed boundaries of the satellite port — with the exception of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, Salt Lake City International Airport and “a couple of small inholdings inside the 6 Mile Ranch” — and had received their consent to be included.

“SITLA is involved in the current port area," Stauffer noted, “and their mandate is to make money, so I think we are safe to include them.”

Other landowners in the proposed project area include the Grantsville Soil District and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After receiving the map of the proposed project area from The Romney Group, Milne responded in an email that the County Commission had reviewed it in a closed session and was “mostly OK” with the proposal.

“I will say that we’re not thrilled about including property that’s not genuinely developable, just to drive up the acreage,” he said.

Stauffer responded that the inclusion of the undevelopable ground was new inland port Executive Director Jack Hedge’s idea.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Jack Hedge, executive director of the inland Port Authority, begins a board meeting at the Utah Capitol, Oct. 17, 2019.

He “thought it was prudent to include,” Stauffer wrote, because “as part of the project area we can create environmental zones that would be protected and provide the landowner with some tax benefit for protecting. He thought this would be essential to give the environmental groups a win.”

Seed, the anti-port campaigner, called that assertion “deeply disturbing,” reading it as an effort to drive up the acreage only to remove some later in a show of appeasing community members.

“This raises a whole host of questions about how sincere they are about any of [the environmental concerns],” she said. “It makes me question whether anything they’re doing is really beyond window dressing and manipulation.”

In an interview, Hedge denied making that statement and said The Romney Group must have misconstrued a separate comment.

Not a ‘backdoor deal’

Nearly a year after the state created the framework for the satellite ports, those watching the project worry that they have no more answers about the development than they did at its infancy.

For Stan Holmes, who serves as a volunteer board member on the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, the Tooele County plans show there’s “so much going on that the public has not been apprised of.”

“This is part of a grander scheme," he said, “that all the focus that’s been directed on the Salt Lake northwest quadrant is almost going to be like a ploy, almost a bait and switch when so much is already happening on the fringes.”

Envision Utah, which has been tasked with conducting a public engagement process on the port, hosted one meeting exploring the satellite port issue earlier last spring. A second gathering scheduled to be held in August was shut down by fire marshals after protesters packed the meeting, which was moved to a police precinct after they publicized their intent to attend.

The Romney Group was expected to speak at that meeting, which has yet to be rescheduled five months later.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police stand guard after a meeting of an inland port satellite working group was quickly canceled. The meeting was held at a police precinct in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Aug. 14, 2019.

“We were going to be one of the presenters talking about the environmental benefits of this satellite locations," Stauffer said, “and the meeting never happened because protesters shut it down.”

Milne noted that the county has had conversations about the proposal with the school board that took place in a public meeting and said commissioners haven’t been trying to hide the concept. Development ideas often don’t come before the public until they’re in a viable state, he added.

“I don't think that the couching of saying it's moved further along or is like some backdoor deal, I don't think there's any merit to that,” he said. “That's certainly not our intention on the Tooele County side.”

To create a “satellite port,” state statute says the Inland Port Authority Board, which oversees development in the port, would first need to receive written consent from the governmental body of the new area or from the private landowners. Beyond that, it’s difficult to know what the process for bringing in a spoke would look like.

Hedge said that will be spelled out in the business plan the authority expects to roll out sometime this spring.

“The assessment will come out more like a strategy and policy level of the strategic plan and then how we implement it, how we work with the counties and things like that, that’s something we’ll develop over time,” he told The Tribune in a recent interview.

Milne said Tooele County has already sent a letter with a map of the 12,000 acres of proposed land to Hedge indicating its interest in being considered as a satellite port location, though Hedge said he wasn’t familiar with the finer details of the proposal and indicated he had not known the size of the project area.

“I thought it was maybe 1,200 acres,” he said.

He, too, stressed that any satellite port proposals are preliminary and said the inland port is working to understand the business case for siting any particular location.

“There are county commissioners around the state who really want to do something to help their constituents,” Hedge said. “And they’re interested in something the inland port can do. But other than a couple of phone calls and a couple of visits with folks, we haven’t seen anything. We haven’t started anything formal yet.”

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, an alliance of eastern Utah counties that banded together several years ago to create projects that would help get their mineral resources to markets, is currently studying the creation of an inland port in Sevier County. Millard, Box Elder and Weber counties have also expressed interest in the project.

“This is a big vision, I think, that they have," Holmes said of the satellite ports. “And the public needs to be aware of what’s in the works.”