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Judge rules against Salt Lake City in Utah Inland Port Authority lawsuit

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

A section of land looking southeast at 7200 West and I-80 that is part of the proposed Utah Inland Port in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, July 16, 2018. On Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, 3rd District Judge James Blanch rejected the city’s lawsuit challenging the state-created Utah Inland Port Authority, ruling the body does not violate the Utah Constitution’s “Ripper Clause” regarding local powers.

James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In a blow to Salt Lake City, a judge has ruled in favor of the state of Utah in the court case over the constitutionality of the Utah Inland Port Authority.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, 3rd District Court Judge James Blanch rejected the city’s lawsuit challenging the state-created Utah Inland Port Authority, ruling the body does not violate the Utah Constitution’s “Ripper Clause” regarding local powers.

The ruling is a major strike against the case former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski laid out prior to her exit from office. She argued the state violated the Utah Constitution when it created an 11-member board to control about 16,000 acres in northwestern Salt Lake County for the development of a global trade hub with a vast network of air, truck and train connections.

The city lost on all counts in its arguments. But it’s not the end of the line for the case.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who was sworn in Monday, told reporters outside of her office late Wednesday the judge’s decision was a “great disappointment,” but the city plans to appeal and take the case up to the Utah Supreme Court.

“It’s our responsibility to our residents in Salt Lake City and really to cities throughout the state of Utah who will be impacted by this decision to get clarity from a higher authority,” Mendenhall said.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office staff issued a statement Wednesday applauding the judge’s ruling, while also welcoming more collaboration with Salt Lake City on the issue.

“We appreciate the thoughtful analysis the district court put into this ruling,” the governor’s office said. “While achieving perfection in lawmaking is difficult, collaboration is key to achieving the best possible results.”

The governor’s staff also noted they “appreciated” working with both branches of Salt Lake City government during the 2018 legislative session to adjust the legislation. After Biskupski walked away from negotiations with state leaders, saying she refused to negotiate on legislation “designed to incrementally force Salt Lake City to bend to the Legislature’s will,” Mendenhall as then-City Council chairwoman spearheaded continued negotiations for improvements to the legislation later passed in a special session.

Though Mendenhall and other City Council members said those improvements were needed, they said it wasn’t a “perfect” bill.

“Those adjustments ultimately led to a better version of the bill,” the statement from Herbert’s office said. “We look forward to continued collaboration between the Inland Port Authority, Salt Lake City, and its residents.”

Jack Hedge, the port authority’s executive director, also issued a statement Wednesday, saying the port authority was “pleased” with the judge’s ruling.

“The port authority continues to be laser focused on completing a strategic business plan that aligns our mission with a revolutionizing global logistics system for the next generation,” Hedge said. “Regardless of today’s outcome, we will continue to promote sustainable and smart logistics investment through partnerships, policies and programs as an entity that serves to insert the values of the public into the process. We look forward to continuing the work with our great municipal and county partners to the benefit of all the citizens of Utah.”

The Utah Inland Port Authority, since it was created by state leaders in 2018, has angered environmentalists and other activists concerned about an inland port’s potential impacts on pollution and traffic along the Wasatch Front, where air quality has tracked among the dirtiest in the country.

But in court, the debate hasn’t been whether or not Utah should have an inland port. Rather, the question posed to the judge was a question of power — and who should get control of the jurisdiction’s future property tax dollars and have final say on land use decisions.

The question of whether Utah’s constitution prevents state lawmakers from seizing control of the trade hub and delegating authority to a board has a simple response, according to Blanch. 

“The answer is no,” Blanch wrote in the 51-page ruling. 

“Whether wise or unwise,” he continued, the 2018 law creating the board “is sufficiently infused with a state purpose.” 

Blanch found it does not violate the parts of the constitution the city had identified, including its “Ripper Clause” barring the state from delegating municipal authority to special commissions. He found the state “articulated sufficiently compelling state interests” justifying the board’s authority to make land use and zoning decisions. 

He noted that while currently within the city’s borders, the inland port project is expected to expand. 

“If that occurs, Utah residents outside Salt Lake City would be directly affected,” he wrote, adding that the Governor’s Office of Economic Development estimated the port could create up to 24,000 new jobs and not all the workers will live in the city. 

In written arguments against the city’s case for an injunction to halt the inland port authority’s work as the case played out in court, state attorneys argued stalling the project would cause “irreparable” harm to not just the port authority, but also state residents, noting the Governor’s Office of Economic Development “is currently involved in negotiations with a number of very prominent companies that are interested in making substantial investments within the (port authority’s) jurisdictional area.”

Those investments could exceed $100 million, state attorneys argued.

Blanch’s decision comes less than two months after state and city officials laid out their arguments in front of the judge. Biskupski walked away from that day in court confident the city’s case would prevail.

“I feel we have a much stronger case and much better legal arguments,” Biskupski said at the time.

Now, just weeks away from the Utah Legislative session, Salt Lake City must regroup and devise a strategy heading into the session. Thanks to the ruling, Mendenhall says she now has “clarity” on the court case, which will affect her and the Salt Lake City Council’s strategy with state leaders as they continue those negotiations.

As city attorneys pore through Blanch’s ruling, Mendenhall said she’ll work with the City Council to devise that strategy.

The outcome of the case will have “unprecedented” shock waves on not just Salt Lake City, but all 248 cities and towns across Utah regarding local land use and taxation authority, Mendenhall said.

“Everything about the inland port is setting a major precedent, and the state’s actions to create the inland port authority and usurp what we believe are constitutionally protected (powers) is unprecedented,” Mendenhall said.

Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said Blanch’s decision “still leaves some concerns for cities” throughout the state “about the fundamental role of cities planning for land use and paying for services and infrastructure that cities provide.”

“We’re already concerned about the role that the state-created authority plays and the role that a city government plays in providing what we’ve already considered to be traditional municipal functions,” he said.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and an organizer with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, encouraged an appeal in the city’s lawsuit, but also noted the city’s legal fight is only “one step of several that needed to happen to correct the harm that’s happening” in the port authority’s jurisdiction.

No matter what happens with the city’s appeal, Seed said it won’t be the end for the fight against the port authority, hinting there may be other, environmentally focused lawsuits coming.

“We’re looking at our legal options with regard to the harm that is and will continue to be caused to our air quality and the wetlands,” Seed said.

Contributing: Annie Knox