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Utah Inland Port Authority asks judge to deny mayor's request to push pause on port

Utah Inland Port Authority asks judge to deny mayor's request to push pause on port

(Scott G Winterton, KSL, File)


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SALT LAKE CITY — After Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski asked a judge to push pause on the Utah Inland Port Authority's work while her lawsuit is hashed out in court, port attorneys have now asked the judge to deny her request.

In a court filing in response to Biskupski's preliminary injunction request, attorneys for the port authority and the state's attorney argue the mayor's motion "should be denied in its entirety because the city does not and cannot meet the heavy burden it bears" to seek the injunction, which would stop the inland port authority's work in its tracks.

Attorneys also argue that the mayor's request would "cause irreparable harm not only to the Utah Inland Port Authority but also to the state of Utah and its citizens."

"Moreover, the city cannot demonstrate it will suffer any harm — let alone irreparable harm — without the issuance of an injunction, that the alleged injury to the city outweighs the threatened injury of granting the broad injunctive relief the city requests, or that the injunction would not be adverse to the public interest," attorneys from the firm Michael Best & Friedrich, which was hired by the port authority, wrote in the Friday filing.

The filing is the latest development in the state vs. city battle over the Utah Inland Port — a controversial project planned in a 16,000-acre area west of the Salt Lake City International Airport that has drawn the ire of environmentalists who are wary of how a massive intermodal hub with train, truck and air connections will impact the Wasatch Front's traffic and air quality. They also worry it will be used to transport fossil fuel, although the port authority has yet to create any plan for the port.

Salt Lake City was in the midst of planning a city-controlled inland port before the 2018 Utah Legislature passed a final-hour bill to put the project area under the control of a new entity — the Utah Inland Port Authority, an 11-member board with a majority of state-selected appointees.

Biskupski sued to challenge the constitutionality of the port authority after she said it "railroaded" Utah's capital, arguing the state usurped city land use and taxing authority when it placed that area of the city under the port authority board's control.

Attorneys for Gov. Gary Herbert, other state officials and the port authority argue against Biskupski's claims of unconstitutionally, calling many of the city's assertions "incorrect and completely baseless," noting that no property tax funds are slated to transfer to the port authority until the first quarter of 2020 at the earliest.

Though the port authority expects to receive about $461,000 in property tax differential from Salt Lake County in about February 2020, "there is zero chance that the (port authority) will spend any tax differential dollars before February 2020" and the authority "will not begin work on the design, development or construction" of the project until sometime after February 2020, attorneys wrote.

Attorneys also argue the city's request would "substantially impair efforts to develop and plan" the port — "a project approved by the Legislature and the governor after years of research and planning." They cite "multiple studies and countless discussions in and around the Salt Lake City area for more than 40 years" after the Utah Legislature first considered establishing a port during the 1990s.

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A 2017 feasibility study "confirmed Utah met the criteria to create a successful 'inland port,'" attorneys wrote, as well as noted "Utah stands at a unique point in time, with a large tract of undeveloped land that lies at the intersection of an international airport, major freeways systems and intermodal rail hub."

"This presents a tremendous opportunity to develop a product to market the state as an international business destination," attorneys wrote.

Stalling the project would cause "irreparable" harm to not just the Utah Inland Port Authority, but also state residents, port attorneys wrote, noting that the Governor's Office of Economic Development "is currently involved in negotiations with a number of very prominent companies that are interested in making substantial investments within the (port authority's) jurisdictional area."

"The magnitude of the investments under discussion is likely to exceed $100 million and would create more than 3,000 jobs with a likely salary of $100,000 or more per year," wrote attorney Evan Strassberg. “Most if not all of the companies with which the GOED is negotiating will be making decisions regarding where they will relocate with the next nine to 12 months, and all are considering making investments in states other than Utah.”

The "key factors" for those companies, Strassberg wrote, is "the availability and magnitude of financial incentives from relevant jurisdictions," so if the port authority was "unable over the next year to commit tax differential" it would be "at a huge competitive disadvantage in recruiting these companies and will likely lose these companies to other states."

Biskupski's spokesman Matthew Rojas said Monday that the mayor and city attorneys "don't find that there's anything in the filing that would lead the court to believe that our request for an injunction is invalid."

"We don't see the state as addressing our issues that the city would be irreparably harmed if this inland port board moved forward on negotiations," Rojas told KSL. Rather, if the port authority is committing future tax dollars in negotiations with companies, the city could be "irreparably harmed from a zoning, planning and taxing standpoint."

"That is why we need an injunction," Rojas said. "It's not just about spending money, it's about are you committing money, are you negotiating with our tax increment, are you negotiating about our planning and zoning laws."

Both the city and state have requested the lawsuit move forward by the end of the year, requesting a hearing come by the end of October. A court date has not yet been set.

The filing comes as the port authority board's last few meetings have been disrupted by protesters. Board meetings in July and August were canceled as the authority's new executive director, Jack Hedge, gets acquainted with the agency.

More recently, protests escalated to violence after demonstrators stormed the Salt Lake Chamber's downtown office, leading to clashes with police.

Meanwhile, the inland port has been a hot-button issue in the crowded Salt Lake City mayor's race, where nearly all candidates running have pledged to support Biskupski's lawsuit if they're elected.

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Katie McKellar

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