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SALT LAKE CITY — The legal battle between Salt Lake City and the state of Utah over the Utah Inland Port Authority and whether it violated the Utah Constitution took a public stage for the first time Monday when attorneys made oral arguments in front of a judge.
The case could set a precedent on state reach into local land use issues.
At stake is what entity will have ultimate control over taxing and zoning in about 16,000 acres of Salt Lake City’s northwest side, the city’s last swath of undeveloped land. The area has been long-eyed for a global trade hub near Salt Lake City International Airport, rail lines and a cross section of interstates.
The Utah Inland Port Authority, since it was created by state leaders in 2018, has angered environmentalists and other activists concerned about an inland port’s potential impacts on pollution and traffic along the Wasatch Front, where air quality has tracked among the dirtiest in the country.
But in court, the debate over whether Utah should have an inland port isn’t at issue. Rather, it’s a question of power — and if the state usurped city authority when it created an 11-member, unelected board to control the jurisdiction’s future property tax dollars and have final say on land use decisions.
State and city attorneys laid out their arguments in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court in front of Judge James Blanch, who didn’t issue a decision Monday. It’s not clear when he will, but it could come in days or weeks.
“I’ll try to issue a written decision as soon as I can,” Blanch said at the conclusion of the more than two-hour hearing.
The judge also applauded the legal work of attorneys from both the city and the state on “complicated issues.”
“I’ve never seen such outstanding briefing from parties,” the judge said.
The judge has two decisions before him in the complex case. One is to issue a summary judgment, and the other is Salt Lake City’s request for an injunction that, if granted, would bring the Utah Inland Port Authority Board and its business to a screeching halt until the lawsuit is hashed out in court. If the judge sides with the state, that would invalidate the injunction.
The state vs. city battle boils down to a key question: Did state leaders violate the “Ripper Clause” of the Utah Constitution — a rarely invoked and somewhat vague section meant to balance state and city powers?
The clause, aka Article VI, Section 28, says the Legislature “shall not delegate to any special commission, private corporation or association, any power to make, supervise or interfere with any municipal improvement, money, property or effects, whether held in trust or otherwise, to levy taxes, to select a capitol site, or to perform any municipal functions.”
Salt Lake City Attorney Samantha Slark spent the majority of Monday’s hearing laying out the city’s multipronged argument that the state violated that clause by creating the port authority. While she acknowledged the state does have certain power over cities because they are political subdivisions of the state, “there are constitutional limits.”
“The state in this case ... it’s pushed the boundaries,” Slark said.
The port authority board’s power that “concerns the city the most,” Slark said, is its ability to “veto” any city decision in the jurisdiction. Slark argued land use and taxing authority should fall to the city because it ultimately impacts Salt Lake City residents.
“They live here. They pay those taxes. And they’re going to live with the consequences,” she said.
Lance Sorenson, assistant Utah attorney general, argued the state did not violate the Ripper Clause because the port authority does not exercise “core” or “pure” municipal functions. He also argued the inland port project would be for a “statewide purpose” to bring thousands of jobs to a minimally developed area.
Sorenson said there’s no case he’s aware of that simultaneously found a Ripper Clause violation if there is a statewide purpose.
“The case boils down to whether there are sufficient statewide purposes,” he said. “I think it’s clear they exist.”
In written arguments against the injunction, state attorneys argued stalling the project would cause “irreparable” harm to not just the port authority, but also state residents, noting 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,” state attorneys wrote.
The judge asked Sorenson if he acknowledged the port authority “significantly hobbles” Salt Lake City residents from having influence on the area’s future through elected officials.
“Yes, your honor, it does,” Sorenson said, but he argued the Utah Legislature was exercising its powers when it created the port authority.
“This is the Legislature doing what legislatures do,” Sorenson said.
But Slark aimed to poke holes in the state’s argument that the port serves a statewide purpose. She argued if it truly was for a statewide purpose, the state could levy a statewide tax instead of controlling taxes in a more condensed area to drive development.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski told reporters after Monday’s hearing she’s confident the city’s case is stronger than the state’s, crediting Slark for an “extraordinary job” of presenting the city’s arguments.
“We strongly feel like the city’s constitutional issues were violated, and I think we presented a very strong case around that,” the mayor said.
Biskupski called the state’s argument that the Utah Inland Port Authority doesn’t violate the Ripper Clause because it was created as a state function “very minimal at best.”
“I feel we have a much stronger case and much better legal arguments,” Biskupski said.
If the judge rules against the city? Biskupski — who is stepping away from her seat at the end of the year as now Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall readies to take her place — said timing will be key.
“I fully anticipate this will fall our way,” Biskupski said. “But if it does not, the timing of that decision will matter, and then we’ll see what happens.”
A spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office declined comment after the hearing.
Jack Hedge, executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, issued a statement reiterating his commitment to continue working as the matter is debated in court.
“I am dedicated to making Utah a sustainable piece of the global supply chain,” he said. “I will let the attorneys and politicians focus on the lawsuit.”