Utah Inland Port Authority's zoning structure does not violate Utah's laws, the Utah Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday, affirming a decision from a 3rd District Court judge in 2020.
The decision offers a win for the growing port authority and delivers yet another blow to Salt Lake City's legal fight against the authority. However, the legal battle appears far from over because the court did not reach a decision on the city's challenges regarding tax provisions, according to Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee, who penned the opinion of the court.
"We do not reach the merits of those claims in today's decision," he wrote.
The Utah Legislature created the Utah Inland Port Authority in 2018; however, Salt Lake City, where much of the port’s jurisdiction is located, filed a lawsuit the following year, arguing that the port authority violated parts of the Utah Constitution — the Uniform Operation of Laws Clause and Ripper Clause — by seizing control of land and tax revenue from Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Magna.
Salt Lake City officials claimed that all three cities were singled out by the state and treated differently than other cities, which violates the Uniform Operation of Laws Clause. The Ripper Clause bars delegating municipal authority to special commissions.
A 3rd District Court judge ultimately sided with the Utah Inland Port Authority in January 2020, days after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall took office. She and the city appealed it to Utah Supreme Court, where a final decision was handed down.
"The city has failed to establish that the zoning provisions' disparate treatment of three municipalities is not rationally related to a legitimate legislative objective," Lee wrote. "And the Act does not delegate zoning or land-use authority to (the port authority), so its zoning and land-use provisions do not run afoul of the Ripper Clause."
He added that the court did not decide on Salt Lake City's claims related to tax provisions because "recent amendments may have rendered these claims moot." The court instead asked both parties to submit supplemental briefs on the issue.
Members of the Utah Inland Port Authority celebrated Wednesday’s decision, issuing a statement shortly after the ruling was handed down that they are “pleased.” The statement went on to say that the agency plans to support the state in its stance on tax provisions issues.
“I appreciate the Utah Supreme Court’s thorough review of this case. Our state has a tremendous opportunity to enhance the crossroads to the west as Salt Lake City has direct rail connections to all major west coast terminals,” added Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who is one of Inland Port Board of Directors members. “The impact of this international port will be positively felt throughout the entire western United States and our great state.”
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City leaders blasted the ruling.
In a joint statement, Mendenhall and members of the Salt Lake City Council say they are "deeply disappointed," adding that it may result in "serious consequences" for the local authority of all the cities and towns across the state.
"The Legislature should not be allowed to unilaterally change municipal land uses it does not agree with or redirect tax revenues that belong to cities," the statement reads, in part. "The purpose of Salt Lake City's litigation was to emphasize the unique authority of cities in Utah to directly respond to the needs of local constituents."
Utah League of Cities and Towns leadership voiced similar concerns following the 2020 decision.
Salt Lake City leaders added that they continue to work with the port authority on a contract regarding ways to mitigate health impacts that may be associated with the growing inland port. They also wrote that they are "considering next steps" regarding the Utah Supreme Court's request for a briefing on the state's redirection of the city's tax revenue.