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Salt Lake City Council approves controversial tax incentive in connection with inland port

$28 million tax incentive approved for warehouse development in city’s northwest quadrant

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A section of land looking north east at 7200 west and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.

FILE - A section of land looking north east at 7200 west and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 16, 2018.

James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A $28 million tax incentive for a warehouse development in the city’s northwest quadrant, now associated with the controversial Utah Inland Port development, was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Salt Lake City Council.

Acting as the Redevelopment Agency, the council voted to approve an agreement entered into last year — before the state passed legislation to create the Utah Inland Port Authority — with NWQ LLC, a conglomerate of northwest quadrant landowners.

“Voting no on this agreement does one thing only: It removes our seat at the table, it removes our ability to protect our residents,” said Amy Fowler, chairwoman of the Redevelopment Agency.

Becoming emotional as she addressed residents and explained her vote, she said, “I know many of you will be disappointed with me.”

She pointed out that before the state became involved, the council “reached out to the community members and we followed the process,” one that she said “quickened when we heard the state would swoop in.”

The incentive would authorize the developer to be incrementally reimbursed for property taxes paid over the course of 20 years. The fund would help pay for infrastructure and improvements such as streets, stormwater systems and utilities.

The council’s decision came at the end of over one hour of public comment that saw more that 35 residents opposed to the overarching inland port project weigh in.

Many cited concerns for air quality and the environment, asking the council to defer a decision on the incentive or to vote no.

“I’m just tired,” said resident Maurena Grossman through tears. “You are supposed to be representing us. I am here because I have two little children and we live right by a highway. I’m tired of more traffic, more trucks, more cars, more construction.”

A number of residents noted it was “ironic” that the city is hosting the United Nations 68th Civil Society Conference, which is focused on sustainability and the environment, while considering approval for the project.

“Like you, we are a human species in a speeding car heading for a suicide cliff, and your choice today may help,” said Jill Merritt

Some residents acknowledged the difficult position the council faced with the vote to approve the already agreed upon incentive.

“I realize that you guys are trapped,” said resident Blake Quinton, adding that “we failed at every step of this process.” He said the question in front of the council is to “let them sue us” or to “approve this is a failure.”

However, council members noted that a potential lawsuit for breach of contract was not the only force at play in the unanimous vote to approve the $28 million incentive.

“Voting against it might make us feel better for a moment, but it would be devastating for the city and for the environment,” said Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who is running for Salt Lake City mayor.

“I refuse to step aside and let the state take control. It would be unilateral surrender, and in good conscience I can’t do it,” she said.

Reflecting residents’ concerns for the environment, council members noted the city stands to lose ground on environmental impacts of the project if the state were to take over. A number of council members lauded the city’s agreement to preserve 4,000 acres of land.

“I have love and gratitude for everyone who has spoken today about the climate crisis. I wish the reality that we face would mean that a no vote would advance climate protection,” said Mendenhall, noting that “the state has made it clear that if you don’t work with the developers, the state will do it for you.”

Though emotions ran high throughout the public comment period, all residents spoke in turn and Fowler praised the city and residents as “an example of how public discourse should occur.” Contention in recent months surrounding the Utah Inland Port has spurred protests that have disrupted meetings and even escalated to violence.