Utah Legislature passes two bills to address inland port concerns

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of the Salt Lake Valley including the new prison under construction, inland port area, Kennecott Copper tailings pond, refineries and recent Bountiful fire scar as seen on Sept. 12, 2019.

Despite opposition from environmentalists who want to stop the project altogether, the Utah Legislature passed two bills that aim to address community concerns around the inland port, an international trading hub planned for a large chunk of Salt Lake City’s northwest area.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson’s HB347 — which changes membership on the Inland Port Authority Board and returns a portion of the board’s taxing and land use authority to municipal leaders — passed through the Senate with a 25-2 vote Thursday.

Several of the lawmakers who supported the proposal saw it as a positive step forward for a project that’s been dogged in recent months by controversy and high-profile protests.

“This bill helps to create some protections and actually is moving in the right direction,” said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Salt Lake City.

Amendments passed Thursday set a deadline of June 30 for 2019 taxes to go to the authority and includes a special effective date upon approval by the governor. The House concurred with the changes Thursday.

Unlike the legislation that initially created the inland port, HB347 has the support of Salt Lake City leaders, who see the proposal as a way to bolster their now limited role in the project’s development.

The bill alters the membership of the Inland Port Authority Board to include the mayors of Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and Magna township, or their designees. It returns 25% of the board’s future property tax dollars back to the city and eliminates the port authority’s absolute power over land use disputes — addressing the major concerns capital city leaders have had with the project.

Gibson, R-Mapleton, has said the legislation is also an effort to address some of the worries of inland port opponents, who fear the environmental and air quality consequences of the development. An amendment adopted in the House, for example, would require developers in the inland port area to meet air quality requirements in order to qualify for tax incentives.

But Deeda Seed, an anti-port campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Stop the Polluting Port coalition, has expressed doubt in the past that leaders will be able to create a “green port” and said Wednesday that the bill only accelerates what she views as a problematic development.

“The legislation further locks into place polluting inland port uses and publicly subsidized development intended to benefit a few developers including Rio Tinto Kennecott and others at the expense of public health and the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem,” she said in a statement.

Despite passage of the bill, Seed promised that the Stop the Polluting Port coalition would continue to organize against the port project, which she said threatens “the health of our families, our communities and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem."

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said Wednesday that he’d received an “enormous amount of feedback” on the bill from his constituents and recognized that community members remain frustrated about the process through which lawmakers created the Inland Port Authority Board in 2018.

“But a no vote on this, I need to make clear to my community, does not repeal the inland port — and in fact, a no vote on this would mean I am rejecting meaningful improvements to the legislation,” he said before voting in favor of the bill.

Separately on Wednesday, House leaders voted 70-1 in support of Sen. Luz Escamilla’s effort to allow the port authority to establish a program to mitigate the impacts on nearby communities.

Reps. Sandra Hollins and Angela Romero, both Salt Lake City Democrats, joked that Gibson, the House sponsor, “may have a heart attack” from surprise when they announced their intent to support SB112.

Like with Gibson’s bill, critics of Escamilla’s proposal have come out in force to oppose the measure.

On Monday, opponents called on lawmakers to require the Inland Port Authority Board to create a “community enhancement program” — not just to allow it to do so.

“If this was going to happen in Holladay or Sugar House, I think we definitely would not be saying ‘may’; it would be ‘shall,’” said Caroline Erickson, who characterized the development as “racist," noting that its impacts would primarily affect those on the west side.

In light of those concerns, Inland Port Executive Director Jack Hedge spoke in favor of the bill Monday, noting that it provides the board with a framework to begin addressing community concerns around the project in Salt Lake City and beyond.

Escamilla, the bill’s sponsor, has characterized SB112 as an “incremental step” that she said would have a positive impact on those who live in the district that will be most affected by the inland port development planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

“I know it’s hard and I want to do more because, like I said, I breathe and I live there and my kids are growing up there," she said Monday.

Salt Lake City Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost was the only House member to vote against the measure.

Both HB347 and SB112 now move to the governor for his signature or veto.