Utah Inland port bill aims to mitigate impacts on nearby communities

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A map shows the extensive boundaries of the planned Inland Port development, displayed during a press conference at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

A Senate committee voted 4-0 Wednesday in favor of a bill that would allow the Utah Inland Port Authority Board to establish a program to mitigate the impacts on nearby communities of the massive international trading hub planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, the bill’s sponsor, characterized SB112 as “an incremental step” that she hoped would nevertheless have a positive impact on her constituents, who live in the district that will be most affected by the development.

“This is one small portion of the bigger piece,” she said of her proposal. “This will allow us to establish a community enhancement program to address pieces of any community that will be impacted — because there will be an impact.”

Opponents of the port have long raised concerns about the potential effects of the 16,000 acre development, which is expected to increase truck, air and rail traffic, on air quality and wildlife near the Great Salt Lake.

But Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, spoke against the bill, which she said had been “watered down so much as to be virtually meaningless.” A total repeal of the port, she argued, would be the better way to address the root of the impacts.

“A community enhancement program raises for me the suggestion that we not build an inland port in a valley that already has serious air quality problems,” she said during public comment. “I mean, that’s really the question we should be talking about is why we’re doing this.”

Escamilla’s original bill would have required the Inland Port Authority Board, which is tasked with overseeing development of private land in the port project area, to create minimum standards for a developer to qualify for authority financing or tax increment funding — including rules related to waste reduction and reuse, the management of hazardous materials and stormwater prevention, and dust mitigation.

The substitute version of the bill removes that requirement.

Gone, too, from the proposal is an expansion of the inland port authority board to 13 members and adding a representative from the Salt Lake City School District. A separate inland port bill, sponsored by inland port board member and House Majority Speaker Francis Gibson, addresses some of the concerns Salt Lake City residents and leaders have had with governance by adding a seat for Salt Lake City’s mayor, which Escamilla’s original bill would also have done.

Gibson’s bill, HB347, also returns some of the board’s taxing and land use authority to municipal leaders. It received bipartisan support in the House on Tuesday with amendments requiring developers in the inland port area to meet air quality requirements in order to qualify for tax incentives and now moves to the Senate for further consideration.

Gibson, R-Mapleton, is carrying Escamilla’s proposal in the House and spoke in favor of the proposal during the committee hearing Wednesday while dismissing concerns among community advocates that it did not adequately address community concerns.

“You’re going to hear testimony it’s not enough, this is just soft, there’s no binding teeth to that," he said of the mitigation efforts. “That is correct. But this could also be nothing and that’s not the intent of this. The intent is to really start moving forward.”

Passage of Escamilla’s bill followed a tense round of exchanges during public comment in which Sen. Daniel Thatcher, chairman of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions committee, attempted to stop constituents from speaking against the port project at large.

“If you are going to complain about the port then it is out of order and we’re going to close public comment,” he said after stopping Dave Iltis, the editor of Cycling Utah, and Heather Dorrell, a former school teacher, from speaking.

“Isn’t this on your conscience?” Dorrell said of the port project as Thatcher cut her off, pleading with him to “do the right thing” and oppose the port.

“We need clean air to breathe,” she said.

While port opponents have ramped up their efforts in the current legislative session to persuade lawmakers to “Stop the Polluting Port," Thatcher noted that there is not currently a proposal that would undo the project and asked them to speak to the proposal actually at hand.

In between opposition from some community advocates, leaders from Salt Lake City and Magna Township, which has a portion of the port within its boundaries, spoke in support of the bill and urged its approval.

“We’re grateful that the Legislature has seen fit to take care of some of the communities that may be impacted by the inland port,” said Cory Holdaway, representing Magna.

The bill now moves to the full Senate for further consideration.