SALT LAKE CITY — Opponents of the Utah Inland Port say this year’s legislation negotiated between state and city leaders is still a “terrible bill” that is more of a giveaway to developers than a good deal for Salt Lake City.
But state and city leaders are standing by the compromise bill as one that seeks to balance city and state powers — and one that only solidifies developer rights that city leaders already approved two years ago.
The week after HB347 was released, organizers with the group Stop the Polluting Port spent Thursday morning lobbying lawmakers to vote against the bill, aiming to sway them to be receptive to a full repeal of inland port legislation altogether.
“We’re not giving up,” said Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of the group Stop the Polluting Port. “We’re going to fight this with everything we have.”
Darin Mann, action director with the SLC Air Protectors who sought to lobby lawmakers Thursday, kicked off the day’s efforts with a chant in a huddle with fellow anti-port organizers.
“People, planet, future,” Mann cheered.
But it’s unlikely the legislation — which sets rules for the development of the port authority’s 16,000-acre jurisdiction west of the Salt Lake City International Airport — will see a repeal after years of being on Utah’s books and having the backing of legislative leaders in Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
Seed, in an interview with KSL on Thursday, pointed to a provision within HB347 that allows developers vested property rights for 40 years within the port authority jurisdiction for a port use in accordance with municipal inland port regulations in effect as of Dec. 31, 2018, and that may not be affected by later changes to municipal ordinances or regulations.
That provision made moot a key concern of city leaders who took issue with the port authority having the ultimate power to hear or approve city land-use appeals — but Seed called it more of a “giveaway to developers” than to city leaders.
“What makes it particularly appalling is this is being held out a win for Salt Lake City,” Seed continued. “It absolutely isn’t that. It takes us in the wrong direction.”
But Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall disagrees. She said in a statement to KSL on Thursday the vested rights provision of the bill “isn’t a giveaway for property owners.”
“Under existing law, the city was already required by the state to allow ‘inland port use’ of the land,” Mendenhall said, noting that in 2018 city leaders “implemented that requirement as a conditional use specifically because that allows us to impose conditions to mitigate anticipated negative impacts.”
“In contrast, repealing the land use appeal section of the act was incredibly significant progress for the city,” Mendenhall said. “Originally, the act gave the port authority board the right to overrule the city’s decisions in its sole discretion if the board determined that the city’s land use decision didn’t match the board’s policies and objectives. The ability for the Port Authority Board had to overrule the city at its discretion undermined our local authority. This change is a major improvement.
“Ultimately, more local control is preserved by repealing the land use appeal language and replacing it with an ‘election of vested rights’ concept for a land use that the Legislature already requires the city to allow,” Mendenhall said.
In early 2018, city leaders entered into a development agreement with property owners within the jurisdiction, already under pressure from state leaders to begin paving the way for an inland port. Later, that development agreement caught heat from inland port protesters, outraged by the $28 million property tax increment reimbursement city leaders later approved as part of that agreement.
The debate around a Utah Inland Port didn’t heat up until the Utah Legislature, just months after Salt Lake City leaders entered into the development agreement with northwest quadrant landowners, moved to create the Utah Inland Port Authority, placing the city’s undeveloped swath of land in control of an 11-member board.
Then-Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and her administration, disturbed by the last-minute legislation, later sued state leaders of the legislation, claiming it violated the state Constitution and city land use and taxing authority.
Since then, newly-elected Mendenhall has negotiated with House Majority Leader Francis Gibson on HB347, but has pledged to continue that lawsuit to establish clarity on state versus city power not just for Salt Lake City, but for all of Utah’s cities and towns.
HB347 also adds a seat for Salt Lake City’s mayor on the inland port board and reduces the amount of property tax revenue the port authority is able to capture down to 75% — but Seed said the port authority shouldn’t be taking any of it.
Seed said it “locks into place” the city’s zoning, but that is still “inadequate, frankly” to address her group’s concerns with potential impact on the environment, traffic and quality of life to Utah residents that haven’t been fully studied.
The Utah Inland Port Authority staff is currently working on a business plan, expected to be released this spring. Seed said lawmakers shouldn’t approve a bill that will lock in developer rights — especially not before that business plan is finalized.
Gibson, asked about the group’s concerns with the vested rights provision of his bill, said those rights were “granted” by the city years ago.
“The city granted those rights,” Gibson said. “I didn’t. That’s already done by the city. ... The city wanted to be able to have the final appeal right, and so that’s fine, but you have to grant an honor which they’ve already given. And the city has given that right, so we’re just making sure it stays the same.”
Seed, referring to past comments from Gibson that no inland port was not an option, said Gibson was “acting like a bully” on an issue with “a lot at stake,” from health impacts to quality of life along the Wasatch Front.
“He is consistently saying to us, ‘I don’t care what you think. We’re moving forward,” Seed said. “And that’s really unfortunate. The people of Utah deserves leadership that engages with their concerns. We elect legislators that protect human health, and there are lots of human health harms that are associated with this development that have not been addressed.”
Gibson, pushing back on Seed’s comments, says he is listening to a variety of stakeholders on a project that will have statewide impact, and one that’s envisioned solidify Utah’s foothold in the global trade economy and bring thousands of jobs.
“You know, every year we continue to massage it, work with the city, work with the county,” Gibson said. “As I’ve said before, we’re going to continue to move forward. This is a statewide benefit, not just for this area but other areas around the state.”