Utah Inland Port Authority approves strategic business plan over objections from the public

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of the Salt Lake Valley including the inland port area as seen on Sept. 12, 2019.

The Utah Inland Port Authority Board voted unanimously Monday to adopt a strategic business plan that outlines a vision for how the massive Salt Lake City import and export hub will develop over the next five years.

The approval came with little debate among the 11-member board and over the objection of port opponents, who again came out in droves to the virtual public meeting to express their concerns about the plan and what they see as its lack of specificity to actually achieve promises that the project will be developed in a sustainable way.

“There is a lot of talk about the strategic business plan setting ‘guardrails’” for future development, port opponent Emily Heinz said during a public comment period held after the vote. “But when the guardrail is set so low it’s easy to step over it, it’s useless.”

“This plan needs to be more concrete in its commitment to the environmental and community protections,” she argued.

The business plan, developed by the national consulting firm CPCS and released to the public last month, provides a big-picture look at where the port is headed while also making a case for the logistics center and for developing it in an environmentally sensitive way.

Initiating sustainable development standards and promoting green industry practices to protect air and water quality and reduce traffic and emissions would help differentiate Utah’s inland port from other trading hubs, the strategic document argues — with the ultimate goal of attracting business to the project area.

Port Executive Director Jack Hedge reiterated those aims ahead of the board’s vote on Monday.

“It is my intention that I will lead this organization to be the most sustainable port of its kind in the world,” he said. “We are committed to both protecting the environment that we live in and to becoming an economic and logistics powerhouse, and those two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in today’s world, in today’s environment, those things go hand in hand.”

Ideas outlined in the plan for how to get there include encouraging use of electric vehicles, fuel-efficient trucks and rail; mitigating congestion through vehicle routing optimization; and establishing sustainable development standards for buildings and construction. The authority also has plans to establish sustainable energy efficiency and emission standards, as well as water and light pollution measures and standards to protect wildlife.

Still, many members of the public remain unconvinced. And on Monday, they continued to raise concerns about the impacts the development could have on air quality and the sensitive landscape near the Great Salt Lake — a globally significant hot spot for migratory birds — as well as on Salt Lake City’s west side, which is made up largely of communities of color.

Heather Dove, president of Great Salt Lake Audubon, said she was “disappointed and dismayed” by the board’s strategic plan, which she argued was “not so much a plan with strategies and policies as it’s actually a very aspirational sales job.”

In response to criticisms about the lack of specificity, Hedge has said the strategic plan wasn’t designed to address all the details and policy standards for developing the port. Instead, it’s meant to serve as a “strategy document” that provides a framework for decisions and that outlines the broad scope of the port authority’s values, mission and strategic direction.

More specific policies aligning with the plan’s tenets will need to be adopted by the 11-member port board at a later time, he noted.

“As we start to move into that phase and really start to put together policies and programs, we’re going to form some stakeholder engagement groups that will be involved in that, advising us on some of those types of things,” Hedge said Monday, promising opportunities for further public input.

Dove and several others who spoke during the meeting expressed frustration also that the plan, which the port board has lauded as the result of months of public engagement and study, was approved before members heard from the public on Monday.

“Clearly you’re not listening and you’re not utilizing this information,” she said. “Your public engagement process is a sham and it’s insulting. You are only going through the motions to say that you satisfied this requirement, and you continue to turn a deaf ear to all the public input.”

Hedge said the board had received more than 400 comments on the plan since its last meeting and had incorporated several changes as a result.

Among the amendments was the addition of the word “equitable” as one of the guiding aims in the board’s mission statement and the incorporation of equity and inclusion within strategies addressing plans related to community and workforce. The board also approved new language in the technical appendices around opportunities for water reuse and conservation and opportunities for idling limits and idling zones.

While comments from the public Monday were almost universally negative, the board did hear from one proponent of the business plan: Tom Buhler, a Magna resident who thanked members for their work to engage with private landowners and public agencies to promote responsible development of the project area land.

“I’m saddened to hear so many voices critique the efforts of the UIPA and the several reports they have created, especially when it appears they have not read those reports and have instead buried their heads in the ignorant rhetoric of their favorite party,” he said. “I encourage all of the voices to calmly sit down, read the several hundred pages of the report provided and give it another chance.”

During its meeting, the port board also adopted a $5.1 million anticipated budget for the 2021 fiscal year — a number that reflects anticipated revenue, with a $2.2 million appropriation from the state Legislature and $2.8 million anticipated for property tax differential.

The biggest line item expenditure included in the bare-bones budget — which provides broad categories for investment of public tax dollars but few specifics — is $1.9 million for a development fund, followed by $1 million for personnel. The board has also set aside $575,000 for “consulting fees and professional services” and $390,000 for legal fees, likely to fight ongoing litigation over the creation of the port that has now made its way to the Utah Supreme Court.

Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council, said she’d like to see the aims outlined in the port’s newly adopted strategic business plan better reflected in its budget, which she noted is the “fiscal implementation of a plan.”

There is “a lack of budget emphasis and staffing emphasis on the priorities of community impact that are in the document,” she said, urging the board to go back through the budget and specifically identify paid staff who will lead efforts to mitigate impacts on the community.

“That will give you great credibility,” Owen argued. “It’s something that can be done in the next few months and will be very helpful.”

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 16 at 4 p.m.