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New Utah Inland Port bill gives Salt Lake ‘big win,’ sponsor says

Mayor Mendenhall hails ‘major step’ for city, but she’s not dropping her lawsuit

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. Gov. Gary Herbert joined legislative and local elected leaders to discuss consensus recommendations for the James Wooldridge, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After months of negotiations with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, a Utah legislator has released a long-anticipated bill changing the statute that created the Utah Inland Port Authority.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, says his bill includes provisions that are a “big win” for Salt Lake City — and the mayor agrees.

But that doesn’t mean Mendenhall is dropping the city’s lawsuit against the state.

HB347 released late Friday, cuts down the 100% tax increment, or future property taxes from new growth the port authority would capture in its 16,000-acre jurisdiction west of Salt Lake City International Airport. Rather, the bill would allow Salt Lake City and other taxing entities to capture 25% of that tax revenue, while the port authority keeps 75%.

The bill also seeks to address Salt Lake City’s lead concern with the port authority’s land use power, Gibson said, by clarifying that developers in the port area must adhere to the city’s current land use ordinances. No longer would the port authority have the ultimate power to hear or approve city land use appeals under the bill, Gibson said.

“It’s a big win for the city,” Gibson told the Deseret News in an interview. “It’s a big give from us.”

Gibson said the appeal issue was a “big sticking point” for former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

“So we’ve agreed to that as long as (Mendenhall) agreed to all of the current zoning out there that the city approved,” Gibson said. “Those rights will be vested and can never be changed.”

Additionally, the bill would give the Salt Lake City mayor, or her designee, a seat on the board, though it would keep it an 11-member board.

It would also give the Salt Lake County mayor, the Salt Lake County Council, and the mayor of Magna Township, or their designees, direct appointments on the board, and in turn removes the seats for executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation and the director of the Salt Lake County Office of Regional Economic Development to serve as technical advisers.

Gibson said there’s “no hatchet to bury” with Mendenhall, and he’s intent on continuing to work well with her. But as far as groups like Stop the Polluting Port, which have been calling on lawmakers to “repeal the port” entirely, Gibson said that’s simply not going to happen.

“There are some people who think that the only way to win is to not have the inland port,” Gibson said. “That’s not an option. The other option is how do we work with the city to try and provide a port that is environmentally sensitive. How do we try to provide a port that causes the least amount of damage possible, or what’s perceived to be negative impact. ... So we’ll continue to work toward that.”

Mendenhall told the Deseret News the bill is a “major step forward” for not just Salt Lake City but all of Utah’s 249 cities and towns “who see themselves reflected in the potential of this statute” and the state’s potential power to override municipal land use and taxing authority.

“The closure of the land use appeal authority and the tax increment distribution are wins for the city that we had hoped to achieve in past sessions, and we are grateful to have come to an agreement today,” Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall prefaced that victory lap by saying Salt Lake City’s negotiations with state leaders over the legislation is meant to get the “best possible outcome” for the city with regards to power and protections — and the debate about whether a Utah Inland Port should exist at all is a separate fight.

“This isn’t a question of whether or not an inland port happens, it’s about how it happens and what the impacts are to Salt Lake City residents,” Mendenhall said. “We have the potential to impact the outcome and the future of the inland port, and we should not be shying away from these negotiations and discussion. I’m going to continue them.”

Still, Mendenhall said this year’s bill is “definitely major progress” for the city, but there are “still environmental assurances we would like to address in the future.”

Mendenhall said the bill doesn’t mean she’ll be dropping the city’s lawsuit against the state. She said that legal fight is about more than just Salt Lake City. Rather, she said it’s for every city in the state of Utah seeking certainty with regard to city versus state power, so she still intends to appeal and bring the case to the Utah Supreme Court.

Mendenhall noted that for years to come, the Utah Inland Port Authority statute will continued to be reopened for tweaks and adjustments, and until the city finds “stability that can outlast the volatility of annual adjustments,” uncertainty will persist for Salt Lake City.

“We are grateful for the collaboration that this resulted in this year,” Mendenhall said. “But I recognize the inland port will likely outlast the current leadership that is coming to the table from the state and city, and that potential for future statutes to be undone and used to harm the city again is a reality that is compelling me to work for something more sure than statute.”

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer of the group Stop the Polluting Port, was not swayed by Gibson’s bill, saying it leaves anti-port activists “in the same position.”

While HB347 includes language stating the port authority “may” use tax increment and other “authority money to encourage, incentivize, or require development” to mitigate environmental impacts like noise, air, light, groundwater pollution, or other impacts,” Seed said that’s not enough.

“Grave concerns about the harm that this development will cause are not addressed in this legislation,” Seed said. “Those are concerns about air quality, the destruction of wetlands that are critical to migratory birds, the impact of all the increased (truck traffic), none of this is addressed.”

The bill also includes a provision that directs the port authority to “establish minimum mitigation environmental standards that a development is required to meet to qualify for the use of property tax” increment, but it leaves the port authority to determine those standards. It also states the port authority “may” develop “world-class, state-of-the-art, zero-emissions logistics that support continued growth of the state’s economy in order to promote the state as the global center of efficient and sustainable supply chain logistics.”

The legislation reflects intent expressed by the port authority’s executive director, Jack Hedge, to build a cutting-edge, green inland port unlike anything that currently exists in the U.S., but it doesn’t pass down any mandates related to environmental impact.

Seed called Gibson’s bill “more window dressing and tinkering” to legislation that should be repealed outright. Thursday, anti-inland port activists lobbied lawmakers for a “do over,” Seed said, “because this process, from our standpoint, has really been corrupt from the beginning.”

Seed, however, credited Mendenhall for negotiating on the bill that began highly negative for Salt Lake City.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we’re begging for crumbs from the Legislature,” Seed said. “We’re grateful Mayor Mendenhall is pursuing the appeal. We think that’s critically important. But we will be looking for leadership from the city in terms of protecting us from these harms.”

Gibson’s bill comes on the heels of a separate bill released just days earlier, sponsored by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City. The bill sought a seat for the Salt Lake City mayor, as well as a seat for the Salt Lake City School District, and would require several environmental and community impact provisions including a mitigation fund.

Gibson said he’s open to working with Escamilla, but he wasn’t inclined to add a seat for the school district or a provision in his bill for a mitigation fund. He said he aims to keep the port authority board to 11 members, and that it’s too early to be discussing a mitigation fund.