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Northwest quadrant bill sets 'dangerous precedent,' mayor says

New legislation would 'strip' final land authority from 1/3 of Salt Lake City, officials say

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation on the development of an inland port in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant — a bill city leaders have been warily waiting for — was made public Tuesday.

When they saw the bill, city leaders say some of their worst fears were confirmed.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski described the bill as "troubling," and one that would set a "dangerous precedent" for not only Salt Lake City, but also other local jurisdictions in the state of Utah.

SB234 would create the Utah Inland Port Authority, a body that would have "exclusive jurisdiction, responsibility and power" to coordinate the development of an inland port in the city's northwest quadrant. The bill wouldn't just impact about 3,000 of developable acres that the city has already begun planning, but the entire 24,000 acres in the northwest corner of the city, minus the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Salt Lake City would get three seats on the port authority board, but the state would get four.

Utah Inland Port Authority boundaries
Utah Inland Port Authority boundaries
Heather Tuttle

The bill would "strip" Salt Lake City of final land-use decisions in an area that represents more than one-third of the city, Biskupski said.

"This means that the city officials you have elected to represent you will not have final say on critical land use decisions for over 24,000 acres that exist in Salt Lake City," the mayor said during a hastily called news conference Tuesday.

While the bill doesn't give the port authority board power to take away land use and zoning decisions from the city, it does give the board the power to create an "appeals panel" consisting of either one or more individuals designated by the board or the board itself.

The bill also would require the city to pay the port authority 5 percent of the total annual amount of the inland port area's tax increment.

"That is taxpayer money with no accountability tied to it," Biskupski said, noting that it would be more reasonable to allow the port authority perhaps half a percent of the tax increment. "That tells you how big it really is."

City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said the bill could swallow some tax increments from businesses Salt Lake City has already worked hard to attract, such as UPS and the Amazon distribution center.

"I share concern with the mayor on the serious and sweeping nature of this draft legislation as it could pertain to every municipality in the state that has economic potential," Mendenhall said.

But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said earlier Tuesday he believes the bill is "fair" to Salt Lake City, while also creating a governing authority for an inland port that has vast economic opportunities for not just the city, but the entire state.

"This is a big effort," Stevenson said. "Salt Lake City is a key to that and they have been left the key as this bill moves forward."

Stevenson said the bill allows for appointees that "bring the best level of expertise" to oversee a global trade area.

"This is very important to the future of economic development, and we think it's very fair and it's really in the hands of the city," he said.

Stevenson added the city "still has zoning" and still has "their tax increment (and) taxing authority."

But to Councilman Charlie Luke, that's only partially true because of the appeal panel's power.

"The thing Salt Lake City really was worried about was retaining our land use authority and taxing authority, and while Salt Lake City still has a piece of that, the port authority board also has a say," Luke said.

Salt Lake City leaders have been wary of any attempt by state leaders to take control of development of the quadrant — the city's last swatch of undeveloped land — ever since they were caught off guard during the final days of the 2017 legislative session when a surprise bill was filed to dilute the city's control of the area to just one seat on a board of other officials.

That bill was also sponsored by Stevenson, who called last year's legislation, which died without a hearing, a "warning shot" to city leaders to work with the state on the area's development.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, earlier this month surprised city leaders with a proposal to create an inland port authority.

Since then, city leaders have said they've been working with state officials to draft legislation. Yet despite that effort, SB234's language was "surprising," Biskupski said.

However, the mayor said she's hopeful the city's concerns will be heard as the bill moves forward. Biskupski said she and Mendenhall met with Stevenson Tuesday to share concerns. Knowing that many lawmakers "really care about preserving land use authority at the local level," the mayor said "there's real opportunity to change this dialogue."

Last week, city leaders said they were "optimistic" about discussions with the state to draft legislation that would give Salt Lake City leaders fair representation on the inland port authority body.

But according to the bill filed Tuesday, Salt Lake City would have fewer seats than state leaders on the board, with two appointees from the mayor and one appointee from the council. The state would have four seats, with two appointees from the governor, one appointee from the Senate president and one appointee from the House speaker.

The nine-member board would also have an appointee from the Salt Lake County mayor and one from the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board.

"The makeup of the board is really independent, should work well with the city," Stevenson said. "It complements the city in what we're doing."

Stevenson added that state leaders have been "in a lot of meetings with the city through this process."

"We have come to the conclusion that this is much larger than any of us, and it's going to take a lot of cooperation to get this done," he said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said he believes the bill unveiled Tuesday is a "good starting point." He said he doesn't necessarily see the appeal panel's authority to change city land use decisions as "troubling," but he believes the county should have greater representation on the board rather than just one voting member.

"Hopefully we'll find a way to bring everybody together and have a consensus on this," McAdams said.

Luke said city officials will be working hard to find a compromise on the bill over the next few days as the session nears its final week. The City Council has scheduled a special meeting to discuss the issue Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.

"We'll see what happens," Luke said. "We still have nine days to go."