Inland port bill moves forward with support from Salt Lake City leaders

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

After hearing from dozens of passionate supporters and ardent dissenters during a packed legislative hearing Tuesday, a Utah House committee voted to give a favorable recommendation to a bill that would tweak the state statute that created the inland port.

Among advocates of the measure were Salt Lake City leaders, who say the bill would address their major concerns with the planned international trading hub by returning some of the local land use and taxing authority and giving them more representation on the board that will determine how the development moves forward.

“Anything that gets us closer to our goals of having more local control over land use decisions, of promoting predictability on the tax increment use — which greatly impacts taxing entities — and encourages sustainable development in the objectives of the port are steps in the right direction,” Council Chairman Chris Wharton told legislators during public comment on the bill early Tuesday.

HB347, sponsored by House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, an inland port board member, 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 appeals.

The proposal also modifies representation on the 11-member Inland Port Authority Board, giving the Salt Lake City mayor, the Salt Lake 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.

Greg Schulz, the municipal administrator for the Magna Metro Township, spoke in favor of both the land use changes and the board adjustments, noting that about 10% of the port’s overall footprint is in his area but that constituents there have lacked representation up to this point.

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“Through the rush of the initial bill, we did not get a seat on the board like the other municipalities; we’re looking forward to having that,” he said.

Among the other proponents who spoke in favor of the bill and the port’s positive economic impacts were industry leaders from groups like the Utah Manufacturers Association and the Utah Trucking Association, as well as commissioners from rural county governments across the state like Box Elder, Emery, Sevier and Sanpete.

“The outlying counties want to be a part of this,” Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers told legislators. “There’s still a lot of counties that don’t have economic things going on like the rest of you have.”

But opponents showed up in equal force, with Salt Lake City residents and air quality advocates raising alarms about the project’s possible impacts on air quality and the fragile environmental landscape near the Great Salt Lake — as well as the port’s potential to benefit a privileged few financially at the expense of everyone else.

“It’s really interesting the dichotomy of the people speaking for and against this bill,” said Darin Mann, a community advocate who’s leading a lobbying effort against the port. “One side you have people who have financial or political interest vested that are usually speaking for it, and then you have members of the public who are concerned about their quality of life and feel left out in the cold and that they don’t have representation.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ceci Davis at a rally against the Inland Port at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

Opponents also expressed skepticism of a portion of the bill that would codify as one of the authority’s objectives a desire to “encourage the development and use of cost-efficient renewable energy in project areas.” The bill would 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.

Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said she was “highly skeptical” state leaders could create a “green port” here, as they’ve promised — particularly “given the vagueness of the language around sustainability.”

“If you were serious about addressing environmental harm, you would use words like ‘must’ and ‘shall’ when describing actions to be taken instead of ‘may’ and ‘encourage,’” she said. “Those are the weakest words in legislative intent and you all know that.”

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, attempted to persuade legislators to change instances of “may” in the legislation around sustainability to “shall,” arguing that those amendments would give the measure some teeth and help bridge a “lack of trust with our communities.”

But her colleagues on the House Economic Development and Workforce Services committee shot down that effort, with Gibson, R-Mapleton, arguing that it wouldn’t make a difference to opponents, who he characterized as unwilling to compromise.

“If I change the word to ‘shall’ there will continue to be opposition,” he said, adding that “at this point I do not want to go there” — though he did promise to continue attempting to address the concerns of opponents.

During public comment, several environmental activists spoke not to the legislation but to the port process in general, calling for a pause on any changes until the public can see a business plan outlining how the project will move forward. Sevier County Commissioner “Tooter” Ogden, an inland port board member, told lawmakers Tuesday that that document is “in draft form as we speak” and is expected soon.

And some opponents continued to advocate for an end to the port altogether.

“We should be looking to repeal the port, not pile on more bad legislation,” said Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, arguing that even an environmentally sustainable port would bring more trucks, cars and congestion to the Salt Lake Valley.

HB347 now moves to the full House for consideration.