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Final-hour bill to control prison area development raises red flags for Salt Lake City

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FILE "” Salt Lake City leaders broke out in a frenzy Tuesday evening when a final-hour bill was made public that, they worried, would threaten the city's control over the development of its 3,600-acre northwest quadrant.

FILE "” Salt Lake City leaders broke out in a frenzy Tuesday evening when a final-hour bill was made public that, they worried, would threaten the city’s control over the development of its 3,600-acre northwest quadrant.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City leaders broke out in a frenzy Tuesday night when a final-hour bill was made public that they worried would threaten the city's control over the development of its 3,600-acre northwest quadrant.

Salt Lake City Democrats were caught off-guard when they saw the newly filed bill, SB278, become public.

"I'm very concerned," said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City. "What this appears to do is take power away from the city and give it to the state. I don't like that. I think the city should have the power to develop that land."

The bill would create a board to "facilitate infrastructure planning" in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant — an area where city leaders have launched a plan for commercial development, utilizing the infrastructure from the new Utah State Prison being constructed there.

But while the board would be comprised of various officials — two members of the Senate, two members of the House, the Salt Lake County mayor, and representatives from the Salt Lake Chamber and other organizations — the only representative from Salt Lake City would be a resident of the northwest quadrant recommended by the mayor.

Hollins and Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, started making calls to notify Salt Lake City officials Tuesday evening, wondering why the bill was filed two days before the end of the session.

"It's a big move to try to remove almost completely the role of the city," Escamilla said. "We talk about not having interference of government over cities, so I'm surprised they now have a different approach when it comes to Salt Lake City."

Escamilla said she wonders if there are other interests driving the bill.

"There's a lot of money in that development," she said. "There is a lot at stake. Just look at how many acres that is."

But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the bill is simply an attempt to create a partnership between the city and the state to develop the swath of land near the prison.

Stevenson said he filed the bill so lawmakers could start looking at it for next year.

"This isn't a power play," he said. "I just thought it would be good to work through it the next session."

Stevenson noted that the state has a lot of capital invested in the area, pointing to the $575 million bond for construction of the prison and another $100 million for infrastructure.

"It's an amazing investment," he said. "We would expect to make sure we have a partnership."

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said city leaders just learned of the bill Tuesday night and were reaching out to legislative leaders for more information.

"As it's written, we don't support the bill," Rojas said. "But we want to find out more information about what's motivating this before we make any clear, definitive statements. We want to work cooperatively with the Legislature and the Senate on the northwest quadrant, so we want to see where this is coming from."

Stevenson said the city has been "an amazing partner so far" and he doesn't "want to create an enemy" in the process.

"I hope this hasn't created concern," he said. "I don't think they ought to worry."

But Escamilla took issue with how the bill was proposed — without collaboration with Salt Lake City leaders.

"It would be nice if they could include people that will be directly impacted," she said. "We were not aware of any of these conversations."

Escamilla said Salt Lake City leaders "welcome partnerships" with the state, acknowledging the development would obviously benefit more than just Salt Lake City.

"But it should be in collaboration," she said. "You can't have a bill proposed two days before the end of the session, with something so big like that, and expect it not to cause concern."

Salt Lake City has already been a partner with the state, Escamilla said, and the city's plan to develop the area is already moving forward.

"There are a lot of opportunities for partnership, but not to the point where they take Salt Lake City's vote," she said.

Escamilla said Salt Lake City didn't want the prison initially, but now the city has an opportunity to shape the land.

"At this moment they shouldn't be hurting the city anymore," she said. "I think we've had enough."

Though Salt Lake City officials and lawmakers said they had no idea what the bill was before it became public, Stevenson said there were "some discussions" with city leaders before it was released.

"I told them the bill is put together, and that was before it was numbered," he said.

Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, who represents the northwest quadrant, said in a text message Tuesday night that he found the bill "very concerning" and that city officials were reaching out to state leaders to "find out the particular details so we know how to respond."

"The entire council wants a working relationship," Rogers said. "A working relationship with the county, state and all stakeholders for the development of the northwest quadrant. We need to understand the purpose and role of this new entity and why the state thinks it's needed, and how it will impact Salt Lake City and its taxpaying residents."