SALT LAKE CITY — The ground rumbled as a semi truck roared by, kicking up dust into a crowd of anti-inland port demonstrators gathered near a dirt road leading to an already busy construction site west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
In yet another show of frustration with state — and now city — leaders, the group Stop the Polluting Port held another press conference to demand politicians put a stop to development in about 16,000 acres west of the airport, an area under the jurisdiction of the state-created Utah Inland Port Authority but also near sensitive wetland and migratory bird habitat.
For Wednesday’s demonstration, port critics gathered on the side of an unfinished road north of I-80, on the west edges of the Salt Lake City International Center, a business park already teeming with warehouses, including Amazon’s massive distribution center at 777 N. 5600 West.
There, activists protested construction of more warehouses — about 6 million square feet — along a road meant to connect with the site of the new Utah State Prison with utility lines big enough to service even more development.
“Our primary concern is this development is happening without any environmental analysis of the air quality impacts, the water quality, wildlife habitat impacts,” said Deeda Seed, a campaigner for the Center of Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of Stop the Polluting Port.
The development by a coalition of northwest quadrant landowners called NWQ, LLC was initially approved by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the City Council last year, months before the Utah Legislature created the Utah Inland Port Authority — grandfathering the project area as the only piece of land in the port authority’s roughly 16,000 acre jurisdiction that remains under the city’s land use and taxing authority.
The deal was finalized in August, when the City Council signed off on a $28 million property tax reimbursement with the developers as part of the development agreement, catching the ire of anti-port activists who see the warehouses as the “camel’s nose under the tent,” laying the groundwork and infrastructure for a larger global trade hub or a Utah Inland Port.
Heather Dove, president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon Society, called the project “reckless and reprehensible,” saying it would endanger a “globally important” habitat for millions of migratory birds. She criticized city leaders, land owners, developers and inland port authority officials for not having a “comprehensive plan” to mitigate impacts on birds.
“The Great Salt Lake is a globally important bird area that has 10 million birds migrating and nesting annually,” she said. “We cannot risk such destruction from this man-made threat is something we have the power to control.”
Other activists like Robert Broadhead, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and resident of Salt Lake City, called the proposed port a “boondoggle” or a “colossal waste” motivated by “graft, greed and stupidity.” Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, called for a third-party health impact study.
“The fact that this hasn’t been done yet is borderline criminal and immoral and completely negligent on the state Legislature’s part,” he said. “They want to force us to accept a project that is unwanted by the people and completely unnecessary. It will make our air quality worse, harm public health and congest our freeways.”
The group Stop the Polluting Port has held numerous press conferences demanding any inland-port related development stop in its tracks. Last month, they called for legislative funding of a health impact assessment of the proposed port before any more taxpayer money is appropriated to the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority.
Wednesday’s news conference comes the day before the Utah Inland Port Authority Board’s first meeting scheduled after a monthslong break after the hiring of the authority’s new executive director, Jack Hedge.
It’s been about five months since the port authority board’s last meeting in June — when one protester, a member of the group Civil Riot, was arrested and others cited after they disrupted the meeting, shouting and locking arms as Utah Highway Patrol troopers attempted to escort them out of the room for violating rules of decorum.
Since then, public vitriol against the port authority peaked when it escalated — in some cases to violence — when protesters stormed the Chamber of Commerce Building, where Derek Miller, the port authority board chairman, also works as the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.
Another public meeting separate from the port authority board, meant to be a working group focused on “satellite” or rural port partnerships, was shut down after protesters disrupted the meeting, even after officials made an 11th-hour decision to move the port meeting to a Salt Lake police precinct.
Wednesday’s demonstration also comes the week after Envision Utah, the group commissioned by the port authority to gather community input on the project, released a report detailing top public concerns swirling around the port: air pollution, environmental impact, increased truck and rail traffic, and overall distrust amid political conflict between Salt Lake City and state leaders.
Envision Utah report
Envision Utah’s report — based on a survey of over 3,000 Utahns through an online survey and meetings with hundreds of others — sought to dispel “confusion” about the port jurisdiction, land use authority and current development patterns that suggest “development within the jurisdictional area is certain.”
“However, there are still many questions about the types of industries, the business practices, and their obligations to the land and the local communities,” the report states. “Something will grow in this area, but the kind of place it will be has not been determined.”
Ari Bruening, chief operating officer for Envision Utah, told the Deseret News in an interview Tuesday that one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Utah Inland Port controversy is that “no decisions have been made” and there’s still “no concrete plan” in place.
But at the same time, Bruening said land owners are ready to start building something, so development pressures are at play.
“In some ways, there’s much more opportunity and time to give input than people think,” Bruening said. “In another way, the private developers are moving forward and so if we want to have the right kind of outcomes, we kind of need to get on it.”
Meanwhile, state and city leaders continue to clash in a legal battle over whether the port authority violates the state constitution by usurping ultimate city land use and taxing authority. The lawsuit is currently in court.
The report also points out some previously laid out environmental protections. Though the Utah Inland Port Authority’s jurisdiction is about 16,000 acres, only about 10,000 acres are buildable across Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Magna when accounting for protected wetlands and already developed land.
Also, a rail yard already exists in the area, along with 92 million square feet of buildings. The question is whether that type of use will grow — and by how much.
Envision Utah’s report sums it up by stating “many big decisions” about the area are “in the hands” of many.
“All actors — the UIPA (Utah Inland Port Authority), municipalities, landowners, developers, trucking companies, rail operators, and other businesses — will need to work together to achieve the future Utahns want,” the report states. “That future involves clean air, a healthy environment, convenient mobility, good jobs and equitable communities. We call on all involved to cooperatively work toward those outcomes for the benefit of current and future generations of Utahns.”
Hedge said Envision Utah’s report will help “guide” the port authority’s policies and how it will use its top tool, tax increment financing, to shape development in the area.
“That’s really important information for us to get,” he said, “that will help inform the work around developing the policies and programs around the business plan process.”
The aim, Hedge said, is to use that input as the board moves forward, despite the frustrations of some who feel they have been ignored throughout the creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority.
“People are rightfully concerned,” Hedge said. “The impacts to the Great Salt Lake are myriad and they’re critically important to be addressed, and the things we can do as the port authority to help mitigate is something we’re going to be focused on.”
Hedge is slated to discuss the report during the Utah Inland Port Authority’s meeting scheduled for Thursday at 4 p.m. at the state Capitol.