Legislature OKs Utah Inland Port bills giving Salt Lake City concessions

Carter Williams, KSL.com, File

Legislature OKs Utah Inland Port bills giving Salt Lake City concessions

By Katie McKellar, Deseret News | Posted - Mar. 12, 2020 at 4:40 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — Two bills resulting from negotiations over the Utah Inland Port Authority have cleared the Utah Legislature in the final days of the 2020 legislative session.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson’s HB347a bill he negotiated with city leaders to give the Salt Lake City mayor a seat on authority’s board and restore Salt Lake City’s land use authority and 25% of the city’s tax increment — won final approval Thursday after the House concurred with a technical Senate amendment.

House Minority Leader Luz Escamilla’s SB112 — a bill to create a “community enhancement program” aimed at addressing the impacts of an inland port on surrounding communities — won final approval Wednesday from the House on a 70-1 vote.

Both bills now go to Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk.

The bills found wide bipartisan support among lawmakers, both supported by Salt Lake City leaders and pitched as efforts to improve the Utah Inland Port Authority’s previous statute that city leaders decried as a catastrophic state land and power grab when it was first approved in 2018.

“We are pleased with the progress and grateful for the assurances,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall in a statement. “We will continue working toward even greater environmental protections.”

The bills cleared the Utah Legislature despite the efforts of environmentalists and anti-inland port groups, including Stop the Polluting Port, that kicked off even before the 2020 session began to lobby for full repeal of the port authority altogether.

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But those demands never stuck, as Gibson, a powerful House GOP leader from Mapleton, made it clear early on that a full repeal of the port authority was not an option. However, he has insisted throughout the session he has had open ears to concerns, has valued a good working relationship with city and county leaders, and was willing to find compromise.

Gibson jokingly feigned a heart attack, falling into his seat and grasping at his chest after Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said on the House floor Wednesday she’d support Escamilla’s inland port bill, crediting efforts to find common ground and add in at least some protections for surrounding communities, even if concerns persist about a Utah inland port.

House Assistant Minority Whip Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, also spoke in favor of Escamilla’s bill, arguing that even though “some people are still not happy with this,” she as a Salt Lake City lawmaker supports the steps it takes to mitigate community impact.

“We’re the ones that live there,” she said.

On Gibson’s bill in the Senate, Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, a former Salt Lake City councilman, said he’s listened to concerns from his constituents that persist over the impact of the inland port, but a “no vote” on the bill would “reject significant improvements” made to the statute regarding Salt Lake City’s land and taxing authority.

The Utah Inland Port has been envisioned as a massive global logistic hub made up of shipping yards, transfer stations and truck, rail and air connections in 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s last swath of undeveloped land west of the international airport.

State leaders say it will maximize Utah’s foothold in the global economy as a vehicle to better coordinate a transforming logistics economy that’s already here and growing with each new Amazon Prime subscription. The port’s executive director, Jack Hedge, has also said he envisions it as a port that could be the cleanest and most eco-friendly in the country — if not the world.

Port opponents argue there is no such thing as a clean port, and a Utah port will inevitably worsen Wasatch Front air quality and cause irreversible damage to sensitive wetlands and the Great Salt Lake.

At the close of the session, port opponents were left disappointed, seeing little progress on any potential repeal of a port authority as the session comes to a close.

They say Gibson’s bill is still a “terrible bill” that is more of a giveaway to developers than a good deal to Salt Lake City because it would allow developers vested rights for 40 years. And while they’ve been complimentary of Escamilla’s efforts, they argue her bill doesn’t go far enough to require the port authority to put environmental protections in place.

“Rep. Gibson’s HB347 is deeply flawed legislation that accelerates the development of a polluting port,” said Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of Stop the Polluting Port.

“The legislation further locks into place polluting inland port uses, and publicly subsidized development intended to benefit a few developers including Rio Tinto Kennecott and others, at the expense of public health and the health of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.”

Seed also said the port authority’s own “community engagement” process has showed the public “does not want this pollution-creating development in the Salt Lake Valley.”

“We will continue to organize against the polluting port which threatens the health of our families, our communities and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, along with exploring legal challenges,” she said.

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Katie McKellar

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