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As Utah seeks foothold in world economy, Salt Lake leaders brace for re-opening ‘can of worms’ in port statute

Salt Lake mayor, state leaders intent on playing nice as inland port again topic at Legislature

Area at I-80 near 7200 South where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
The area at I-80 near 7200 West where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — More proposed changes are coming to the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority legislation, and as the 2020 legislative session gets underway, state and city leaders all say they’re intent on maintaining a good relationship, despite the complex issues at play.

It’s “a bit of a can of worms,” as Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall put it, that will be cracked opened for a third time — and each time it opens, the debate over city versus state power spills out.

“Here it is, the third legislative session on port-related issues, opening that piece of statute yet again,” Mendenhall said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “And it brings me both concern about the volatility of anything in that statute to change and a desire to have more assurance on all those issues.”

Those issues for Salt Lake City include local land use control, taxing authority and protecting the environment. For state leaders, their interests lie in developing a project they say will benefit not just Salt Lake City but the entire state by maximizing Utah’s foothold in the global import and export economy.

No bill has been unveiled yet, but the port authority’s executive director, Jack Hedge, wants to memorialize in legislation a Utah intent to build “the most sustainable logistics development in North America, if not the world,” as well as include language to clarify local land use rights within the port jurisdiction.

“We want to tell the community and our stakeholders, but also the market, that the state of Utah intends this to be the most sustainable logistics infrastructure anywhere in the world,” Hedge told the Deseret News in an interview ahead of the 2020 session. “This is how we are positioning this development. It is our mission. And we are inserting the public’s will and values into this process.”

Area at I-80 near 7200 South where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
The area at I-80 near 7200 West where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

But skepticism remains about whether those legislative changes will address environmental worries swirling around the global trade hub proposed in about 16,000 acres west of Salt Lake City International Airport. Hedge himself says it is unlikely the clarifying land use language will settle all of Salt Lake City leaders’ concerns with the legislation, which gives the 11-member Utah Inland Port Authority board the ultimate ability to appeal local land use decisions.

State and city leaders continue to clash in court over the port authority’s constitutionality based on the dispute over local land use and taxation. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall plans to appeal a judge’s recent rejection of the city’s case, intent on taking the issue to the Utah Supreme Court.

“It’s encouraging to hear Mr. Hedge talk about wanting sustainability and more environmentally specific language built into their piece of legislation,” Mendenhall said, “but Salt Lake City for years has been arguing that we, like any other city, should be able to do land use and contractual development agreements with property owners as we would normally.”

So while the intent for the port to be environmentally minded is “encouraging,” Mendenhall said, “it really is about the details.”

‘We will have the inland port’

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said he’ll be running this year’s bill, though he declined to give specifics about what it will contain while it’s still being drafted. It is slated to be released within the next few weeks.

But Gibson did say killing the inland port is not an option.

“People say I’m not listening,” Gibson said, referring to public outcry over the port. “If not listening means we don’t have an inland port, then you’re right, I’m not listening. We will have the inland port. But we will continue to work to make sure we minimize its environmental impact while maximizing its economic benefit for the state.”

Meanwhile, public opposition remains high as citizen groups demand lawmakers repeal legislation altogether, skeptical that any changes will be enough to ease their concerns about impact on air quality, traffic and sensitive wetland habitat near the shores of the Great Salt Lake.

To Mendenhall, environmental concerns fueling the port authority’s loudest critics are likely bigger than the legislative debate on Capitol Hill.

“The big issue of the environment and actually having assurance that we are not going to have new gross pollution sources and that our west-side communities won’t be adversely impacted may not be anything we can ever find in a statute,” Mendenhall said.

Environmental advocates have long said they’ve been exploring options for litigation against the inland port, separate from Salt Lake City’s lawsuit over constitutionality.

Possible legislative changes

Though Hedge says much of the bill will consist of “technical cleanups,” Mendenhall said she’s already wary of a possible attempt to adjust the sole seat Salt Lake City’s mayor has influence over on the port board.

That seat is currently defined in statute as the chairperson of the Salt Lake Airport Advisory Board or the chairperson’s designee, but there may be a change to codify that seat specifically for the airport’s executive director to bring technical expertise to the board.

But Mendenhall isn’t receptive to that.

“To take the one position that the Salt Lake City mayor has appointment over is inappropriate,” Mendenhall said. “They surely need lots of technical expertise on a board that is currently full of political appointments, so if they need to create a technical advisory committee or something, they should look into doing that and not take the only political appointment the mayor has on the board.”

A separate bill related to port authority could perhaps attract additional controversy. HB91, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, would remove a provision that disqualifies anyone from serving on the Utah Inland Port Authority board — as well as on the the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority board tasked with planning development at the site of the old Utah State Prison — for residing within 5 miles of the land in those board’s jurisdiction.

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes was disqualified from serving on the port authority board because he owned property within the port jurisdiction, but Stenquist said his bill would not apply to Hughes’ situation because it would only allow someone to serve on the board if they live in the jurisdiction. The aim of the bill, Stenquist said, is to allow a person such as a mayor or other elected official to represent their area on the board, especially in an area as vast as 5 miles.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Democrat that represents the district closest to the port jurisdiction, has also filed an inland port-related bill, though it’s not yet public as she continues to draft it. She didn’t go into details, but Escamilla said she plans to include language to address how to deal with the development’s construction waste materials as well as including a component for a “mitigation fund” to help communities impacted by the development.

Ending the ‘animosity’

Despite the competing city and state interests, the fierce public outrage and the ongoing legal battle over the port authority, both the governor and Mendenhall are prioritizing a good state-city working relationship.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who has begun his final year in office, recently told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards one of his “No. 1 priorities” in his final year is to “see if we cannot bridge the gap, the animosity, which has unfortunately been created over the past number of years” between state and Salt Lake City leaders.

“We want to make sure we’re working in concert together and with a collaborative spirit,” Herbert said. “That’s going to be better for everybody. And if there’s anything I want to accomplish this last year, that’s probably the top of the list.”

That relationship has long been strained due to political differences between leaders of a largely conservative state and capital city seen as a blue island in a red sea. But throughout former Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s tenure, city-state relations grew increasingly strained — particularly after the Utah Legislature caught city officials off guard when they quickly passed a new version of the inland port bill in the final hours of the 2018 session.

When Biskupski walked away from negotiations with state leaders, standing firm on her position not to negotiate on a bill that she said had been designed to “force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature’s will,” then-City Council Chairwoman Mendenhall stepped in to negotiate, finding an imperfect compromise on inland port legislation with state leaders in a special session bill.

Herbert has praised Mendenhall, saying he’s “looking forward” to building bridges with her as the new mayor. Mendenhall, in turn, said she and the governor have “agreed for a long time there’s more we can do better together, and the inland port is one of those issues.”

“I’m grateful for the governor’s desire to collaborate with us,” the mayor said. “He has but one year left, and I am only the new mayor for one year, so our opportunity there is one I intend to take advantage of.”

Gibson said he’s working with Mendenhall to draft this year’s bill, noting “she’s been great to work with.” He said in a recent meeting she told him she’d “like to bury the hatchet” between the Legislature and Salt Lake City, and Gibson said he “was very clear there was no hatchet to bury between the mayor and myself.”

“I look forward to working with her. I think (House Speaker Brad Wilson) looks forward to working with her,” Gibson said. “We embrace her.”

New leadership on port board

A change that may bode well for Salt Lake City heading into 2020 is a familiar face taking the helm of the Utah Inland Port Authority board: City Councilman James Rogers.

Rogers took the place of Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, as board chairman after a leadership vote during the port board’s last meeting in October.

Rogers, who represents a west-side district that includes the airport, sees his new role as “the chance for us to build additional trust” with lawmakers, environmental groups and the public as the port project progresses.

Being both chairman and the only elected Salt Lake City representative on the port board is a “heavy burden” to carry, but Rogers said he’s determined to balance both interests. Rogers, a longtime ally of Mendenhall, speaks highly of the new mayor, and says her leadership will be key to “clearing the air” between the mayor’s office and state leadership.

“Everything about Mayor Mendenhall is a bonus,” Rogers said. “Looking at the port, she will have a huge impact in looking at legislation and changing things to have better outcomes for the city.”

But how does Rogers balance being chairman of the port authority board while city leaders continue to sue over its very existence? Rogers said he’s recused himself from all City Council discussions over port-related litigation as to not jeopardize the case.

To Rogers, stopping port board business isn’t an option.

“You can’t stop it,” he said, noting that Salt Lake City doesn’t own the land in the area and developers are ready for the project to move forward. “It would be a different story if the city owned the property, but it’s all private property.”

Rogers has high hopes for the port authority with Hedge as its executive director, and he believes there is a way to ensure sustainability “is seriously considered and implemented” into the development.

As for handling future protests at board meetings — which are currently on pause as Hedge finishes drafting the port authority’s strategic business plan that is expected to be finished in March or April — Rogers said he’ll handle protests as they come and push the port board’s business forward while giving people opportunity to voice concerns.

“I’ll continue doing what I need to do,” Rogers said. “You have to have thick skin.”