New inland port bill has ‘some big steps forward’ for Salt Lake City, leaders say

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

Two years after the Utah Legislature passed a bill taking control of some 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s northwest area with little input from city leaders, the state is once again tweaking the statute that created the inland port — this time with the support of capital city leaders.

HB347, sponsored by House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, an inland port board member, attempts to address the major concerns city officials have had with the project by returning some of their land use and taxing authority and offering leaders more representation on the board that will determine how the development moves forward.

“This bill has some big steps forward,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall in an interview Saturday, noting that the bill was the product of months of negotiation. “The bill takes care of some of the structural components and vulnerabilities that the city had and what’s yet to come would be now how do we build it? These are some foundational elements, but the discussions have to continue.”

The legislation, introduced Friday evening, would give the city back 25% of its future property tax dollars, allowing the Inland Port Authority to capture 75% rather than 100% as the Legislature had originally approved. And it would allow municipalities in the port area to serve as the final arbiter on issues around the interpretation of land use ordinances — effectively removing the port authority’s absolute power over the appeals process.

Gibson’s proposal also tweaks representation on the 11-member Inland Port Authority Board, giving the city mayor, the county mayor and the mayor of Magna township or their designees a seat at the table. To do that, it removes spots reserved for the executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation and the Salt Lake County Office of Regional Economic Development.

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton praised the bill Saturday, noting that while there will likely be other changes the city would like to secure in the future, the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“Anything that gets us closer to our goals of having more local control and getting clarification on the tax increment use is going to be favorable, the council is going to favor,” he said, but noted that the body hasn’t yet had time to discuss the bill as a group.

City leaders are far from the only critics of the inland port. The project has been dogged by complaints from environmental activists about the possible impacts of the port — which state leaders have billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project.

Gibson’s bill would codify the promise made by inland port authority board members that the development will be environmentally sustainable.

The bill sets it as one of the authority’s objectives to “encourage the development and use of cost-efficient renewable energy in project areas” and would also allow the use of property tax dollars to “encourage, incentivize or require” developers to mitigate noise, air, light, and groundwater pollution and other negative environmental impacts.

That’s part of an effort, Gibson said in an interview, to “continue to find ways to mitigate the environmental impacts to the city while still bringing the necessary benefits to the region and the state of Utah.”

But Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Saturday that she sees those provisions as nothing but “lipstick on a pig" and overall labeled the bill as “terrible.”

“The language that talks about sustainability and so forth is the weakest possible language that they could come up with,” she said. “Words like ‘may’ and ‘encourage’ — there’s no ‘shall’ and ‘must’ in here.”

In response to criticisms about the environmental language in the bill, Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he “didn’t have to put any of that in” but “felt it was important as a board to acknowledge we’re going to be sensitive to those things.”

“I’m trying to meet [them on] middle ground; there is no middle ground for them,” Gibson said, adding that there’s been “no acknowledgment” from port opponents about the efforts from state legislative leaders to address their concerns.

Seed confirmed Saturday that the Stop the Polluting Port coalition, which has recently been escalating its efforts to accomplish the goal spelled out in its name, doesn’t plan to back down from its fight and will continue to call for a total repeal of the project.

“In order to stop the harm, we have to start over,” she said. “And we know that’s a steep hill to climb, but we also believe that the taxpayers of Utah should not be subsidizing a project that is contrary to the public good.”

While Mendenhall characterized the bill as a step forward, she said she won’t withdraw the city’s lawsuit against the port’s creation, which was recently appealed to the Utah Supreme Court. A decision from the high court, she said, could bring clarity to cities across the state as they seek to understand the boundaries of state and city power.

And that ruling will be more about who has ultimate control over zoning and land use in the inland port jurisdictional land than about whether it will actually be built.

“The state has made it abundantly clear that there will be an inland port and we should go about as a community figuring out how to build it with the necessary protections and assurances we need for a project of this scale,” she said. "I hope that others will join this dialogue as the port authority’s business plan and modeling come forward in the coming months to help us make sure we get the best possible outcomes.”

Gibson’s bill is one of a number of proposals under discussion in the current legislative session that would address the inland port.

Among them is Salt Lake City Sen. Luz Escamilla’s SB112, filed last week, which would require the Utah Inland Port Authority to study the development and implementation of a fund to mitigate port impacts on nearby communities. The bill would also require the port board to create rules for developers to qualify for tax increment financing around waste reduction and reuse, the management of hazardous materials and stormwater prevention, and dust mitigation.

Gibson praised Escamilla’s leadership on behalf of Salt Lake City residents and said he’ll “continue to work with her with regards to her bill."

He also pledged to continue working with city leaders, noting that he has a “great working relationship” with both the council and the Mendenhall administration.

“There are people all over the state who want this and we’ll continue to work to try to make sure that it benefits the statewide project while minimizing the impact in Salt Lake County,” he said. “I think we’re in a good spot right now.”