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Pressure mounts as groups join Salt Lake's cries for veto of inland port bill

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski met with Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday to push him to veto a bill to create an inland port authority over the city's northwest quadrant, but it wasn't immediately clear whether the meeting had any sway, though city officials were hopeful.

"The meeting was positive," said Paul Murphy, the mayor's deputy director of communications. "The governor listened to the objections from the city and promised to meet with legislators and others before making a decision, and he said he would call (the mayor) before he makes a decision."

Herbert has already said he plans to sign the bill, with the intent to discuss technical fixes that might need to be made in the next general session.

"Gov. Herbert and Mayor Biskupski had a productive conversation this morning," the governor's spokesman, Paul Edwards, said in a statement Wednesday. "The governor appreciated the opportunity to listen to the mayor's concerns about SB234."

Herbert's office declined comment in response to a question about whether the governor's decision to sign the bill has changed.

Meanwhile, pressure has been mounting as others have joined Salt Lake City's efforts to urge a veto of the bill.

As passed, SB234 would give the Utah Inland Port Authority ultimate say over administrative land-use decisions and the power to capture 100 percent of tax increment from new developments in the project area — what city leaders consider a massive state land grab of nearly 20,000 acres of the capital city's last undeveloped swath of land.

On Tuesday, most members of the Salt Lake County Council signed a letter asking Herbert to veto the bill, drafted by County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw. Councilman Michael Jensen was out of town and could not sign.

Bradshaw said he hand-delivered it to the governor's office Wednesday.

"Having served as a county commissioner yourself, we trust you are keenly aware of the ramifications of an unelected board usurping local control," the letter states. "We do not believe that an unelected board, unaccountable to the voters, is an appropriate authority for making land-use decisions in any locality."

The letter also decried the removal of tax increment from local school districts and city and county governments, while also leaving local governments with the responsibility of providing municipal and public safety services for the area.

"We believe that this bill sets a very dangerous and precarious precedent of eroding local control and should be vetoed," the letter states.

County Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton said Wednesday she was "frustrated" that the council hadn't been involved in any of the discussions surrounding the bill while it was being negotiated at the Capitol.

"Never once did anybody come to us. Nobody reached out to me to say, 'How do you feel about these tax increment issues?'" Newton said, adding that neither of the county's two positions on the port authority board requires advice or consent from the County Council.

"The County Council was completely left out of that process, and I think there's a lot of unanswered questions about the inland port authority and, really, its impact," she said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, however, hasn't opposed the bill. In response to a request for comment Wednesday, spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend referred to McAdams' comments to the Deseret News last week, when the mayor said, "for the most part, the bill is fair."

At the time, McAdams said that while he "certainly recognizes the concerns, I think they may be a little overstated," noting that the port authority's capturing of tax increments is "not that different from most other economic development incentives we negotiate." McAdams also said protections of environmentally sensitive lands "will be a top consideration as we move forward."

The Salt Lake City School District, however, has joined Salt Lake City's cries. Lexi Cunningham, the district's superintendent, issued a statement late Tuesday urging the governor to veto the bill.

"This bill, if signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, would greatly hurt the Salt Lake City School District," Cunningham said. "We know the governor to be a champion of education and have appreciated his support for Utah’s public schools. If he signs this bill, the governor will be supporting the loss of property tax revenue for the Salt Lake City School District."

Over the next 25 years, city officials estimate the port authority would take control of $1.4 billion, including $360 million in new property tax revenues from Salt Lake City, $581 million from the Salt Lake City School District, and $84 million from city libraries.

The Utah League of Cities and Towns has also urged Herbert to veto the bill, arguing it "violates two core principles of local control — land use authority and local property tax increment — and may be unconstitutional," according to a letter signed by league leadership and sent to the governor's office last week.

"The sweeping consequences of SB234 are bigger than one city or a proposed inland port authority," the letter states. "We believe signing this bill into law will likely result in litigation, and in turn delay the development of the shared objective."

Meanwhile, a groundswell of opposition from concerned west-side Salt Lake City residents was in its beginning stages, with people gathering to plan how to urge Herbert to veto the bill.

Later Wednesday night, the Jordan Meadows and Westpointe community councils held a joint meeting, where about three dozen residents came to ask questions from Salt Lake City legislators about the inland port and express concerns.

"I'm worried about the insidiousness about the way they're doing this," said Natalee Thompson, a resident who lives in an agricultural area within the boundary included in the port authority, near the north end of the Salt Lake City International Airport. "I don't think it's transparent. I think it's underhanded."

Charlotte Fife-Jepperson, a resident of Poplar Grove neighborhood, asked who had called the governor yet to express concerns. About a dozen people raised their hands.

"Everybody needs to do it," she said. "They need to know how we feel."

Dennis Faris, chairman Salt Lake Community Network, said "all we have to do is throw their own words back at them," noting that state leaders have often argued for local control in issues like Bears Ears.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, attended the meeting and fielded questions along with City Councilman James Rogers and some staffers from Biskupski's office.

Escamilla told attendees she and Hollins met with Herbert earlier Wednesday, and while it's not known yet what he will do, they were hopeful of the possibility the bill could be vetoed and an alternative version might be passed in a special session. But if that happens, then the new bill would need to gain support from the rest of the Legislature, Escamilla noted.

The group then began plotting strategies to reach out to the governor and other legislators, including social media campaigns, an online petition, and a sit-in in the governor's office.