Commentary: HB272 should be vetoed because Utah Lake is not for sale

The bill paves the way for an outlandish real-estate development in the middle of the lake by authorizing one of the most egregious land grabs in Utah history.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Legislative Water Development Commission take a tour of Utah Lake on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, for the purpose of learning of wastewater treatment, the importance of protecting our lakes and rivers, how the state is looking to change water quality standards and how regulation is an important local issue.

If ever a bill deserved a gubernatorial veto, it would be HB272, Utah Lake Amendments, which barely passed by a single vote in the waning hours of this year’s Utah legislative session.

Under the guise of restoring Utah Lake, HB272 paves the way for an outlandish real-estate development in the middle of the lake by authorizing one of the most egregious land grabs in Utah history.

At face value, HB272 appears to provide a much-needed fix for Utah Lake. The bill outlines a comprehensive approach to address many challenges facing the lake, such as water quality, fish habitat, algal blooms, invasive species and recreational uses. It also authorizes a seemingly innovative plan to pay for restoration projects the state cannot, or will not, fund on its own. And it provides additional legislative oversight for such an ambitious effort.

But after reading HB272 more carefully, it’s plain to see the fix is in. Instead of restoring Utah Lake for the benefit of the public, HB272 cheats the people of Utah out of their inheritance for the benefit of scheming land developers. Ultimately, HB272 will lead to the collapse of the lake’s ecosystem and the eventual demise of Utah Lake.

Despite its lofty and seemingly positive objectives, HB272 should be vetoed because it is unconstitutional and not in the public interest.

First, HB272 is unconstitutional with respect to its form. The Utah Constitution states that “no bill shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title.” HB272 violates this constitutional provision because it covers multiple subjects, none of which are stated in the title. Additionally, in contradiction to its title, HB272 fails to amend any existing laws.

Another constitutional problem with HB272 is that it was written to benefit a private company. This newly formed Delaware corporation currently has a proposal and application pending before the state to acquire sovereign lands under Utah Lake as compensation for its dubious restoration plan.

HB272 corrects a legal problem that would ordinarily prevent the state from approving that application. The bill also allows this company to become the de facto contractor for the multibillion-dollar restoration project without having to bid for the contract. This kind of “private” or “special” legislation is prohibited by the Utah Constitution, which states, “No private or special law shall be enacted where a general law can be applicable.”

The final and most important legal problem with HB272 involves the provision that authorizes the state to dispose of sovereign lands in and around Utah Lake as compensation for restoration work. Currently, Utah Administrative Code only allows exchange of sovereign lands for other real assets, which means land for land. Accordingly, sovereign lands cannot be disposed of, or effectively sold, as compensation for restoration work. HB272 allows this type of land transfer.

Furthermore, sovereign lands cannot be sold or exchanged for private real-estate projects like the half-baked “fantasy island” development proposed by the aforementioned company called the Arches. Unlike other public lands, sovereign lands are protected by the Utah Constitution and held in trust by the state for the people of Utah. They cannot be transferred or sold for private uses that interfere with their constitutionally protected uses, such as navigation, fishing, recreation, aquatic beauty and maintaining a type of highway for commerce. This is well-established law.

HB272 should be vetoed on constitutional grounds. Utah Lake can be restored without giving up title to the submerged land. Utah Lake and our state sovereign lands are not for sale, especially not for a ridiculous and highly speculative real-estate development like the Arches.

Jeff Salt | Friends of Utah Lake

Jeff Salt, Millcreek, is the founder of the Friends of Utah Lake.