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Inland port bill advances, but Salt Lake leaders still have 'grave' concerns

Is state encroaching on city's authority or just being partner for big project?

FILE - Land that is being considered for development by Salt Lake City is seen on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.
FILE - Land that is being considered for development by Salt Lake City is seen on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While land acreage was slashed from 24,000 to 19,000, a bill Salt Lake leaders say would have unprecedented and dangerous implications for local land decisions advanced Friday — still carrying deep concerns for the city.

A scaled-back version of SB234, which would create the Utah Inland Port Authority board to oversee the development of a global trade area in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant, cleared its first hurdle.

The bill, with some changes including the port authority's land reduction, passed unanimously out of the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Standing Committee. It now goes to the Senate floor — but not without lawmakers urging more work to address Salt Lake City concerns.

Though Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski credited the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, for continuing to work with city officials on the bill, the new draft "still leaves me with grave concerns," she said Friday.

"This usurps the city's core municipal function and gives an unaccountable board the right to supersede the city's ordinances if it has a different opinion about how the northwest quadrant should be developed," Biskupski said. "Such unprecedented authority has far-reaching unintended consequences, not just for the city but for other municipalities in the state and is an overreach into local authority."

SB234 would still "redirect" final administrative land use decisions to an appeal panel consisting of the Utah Inland Port Authority members, giving the board the right to "override" local land authority, Biskupski said.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said city leaders welcome a world trade area — in fact, Salt Lake City has been working "tirelessly" for nearly two years to create one.

"We're willing and ready partners, (but) we have serious concerns with the current language in this bill," she said. "As drafted, this bill would be an unprecedented encroachment on core municipal functions that would threaten every municipality in Utah."

The board would also have the authority to automatically take 5 percent of the tax increment of any project within the port authority's area, Biskupski noted.

The city would also have less representation on the board that state leaders, with only three appointees to the state's four.

"If I'm understanding this, this is really just about control," Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, remarked.

But Stevenson disagreed.

"It's about working with the city," Stevenson said. "We have a project here that's much larger than any one community can take on."

The Utah Inland Port Authority would create a global trade area unlike anything the West has ever seen, Stevenson said, and the purpose of the bill is to create an oversight board that would enable the state to work "in concert" with local authorities and private property owners in the area.

"The infrastructure to support this would be tremendous and take the resources of not just a city, but a county (and) a state to help put this together," Stevenson said. "It could be the largest economic development project we've ever done in the state of Utah."

Stevenson stressed that the intent of the bill is to structure a "partnership" with the city. "We don't want partners that are not eager to play in this realm, and yet we need to establish what that realm is. That's what this bill does."

Stevenson added, "This is not a destination bill; this is a process bill," noting that state leaders will "probably look at this several times over the next few years."

Though its fiscal note was not yet public Friday, SB234 would have an estimated $1.5 million fiscal note for "startup" of the board, Stevenson said, noting state leaders expect there will be travel costs associated with the first year so board members can see other ports as they help develop their own.

Northwest quadrant private property owners, including John Birkinshaw, principal adviser for Rio Tinto, spoke in favor of the bill — but in concept, acknowledging there are issues the state needs to iron out with the city.

"We are advocates for coming together," Birkinshaw said. "We think the formation of the authority is essential, but we do understand there are some issues in the bill that need to be evaluated."

Before the vote moving the bill to the Senate floor, Anderegg said he would support the bill because he wanted it to have a chance to work through the process.

"This bill's not done," he said, noting that it still needs to make its way through the Senate floor and the House. "Let's make sure if there are tweaks that need to be made, let's make them and let's get this right."

Sen. Karen Mayne, R-West Valley City, said she always knew the site where the prison would be eventually be relocated would end up becoming a "bonanza" because of development opportunity.

She said the "ramifications" of SB234 will be "monumental." She acknowledged Salt Lake City's concerns, but said, "We need a vehicle to make it happen," urging Stevenson to continue working with city leaders to draft a bill to make the city "comfortable."

Less than a week remains in the 2018 session. Biskupski and Mendenhall both said in an interview after the vote they're hopeful they can work through some amendments to the bill as it makes it way forward.

If not?

When asked about the potential of the city pursuing any litigation if it turns out SB234 passes without quelling their concerns, neither Biskupski or Mendenhall ruled that out.