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Inland port negotiations hit a wall

Chair Erin Mendenhall, center, speaks during a special Salt Lake City Council work session at the Salt Lake City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 9, 2018. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News File)

SALT LAKE CITY — Negotiations between city and state officials over who’s overseeing development of a planned inland port in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant stalled Friday, with both sides saying there’s no reason to call a special session to address the city’s concerns.

Despite months of talks and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s willingness to call a special session to tweak SB234, those talks hit a wall last week.

“For two months, Gov. Hebert negotiated in good faith with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes on changes to the inland port authority bill passed by the Utah State Legislature in the 2018 General Session,” said Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards.

“We regret that these negotiations produced neither an acceptable compromise nor the needed special consensus to convene a special session.”

Officials from Salt Lake City were not immediately available for comment.

The bill, as passed, establishes a new governing body called the Utah Inland Port Authority to oversee the development of a global trade area on nearly 20,000 acres of Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant west of the airport — the city’s last undeveloped swath of land.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said Herbert, leadership and the Salt Lake City mayor’s office were in negotiations last week that stalled.

“They did not quite get to where they needed to be,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said negotiators were trying to resolve Biskupski’s chief concerns, including clarifying standards for land use decisions, clarifying the tax increment, potential adjustment of the port authority’s boundaries, and possible changes to the composition of the port authority board, including a member to be appointed by Salt Lake City.

The Utah Inland Port Authority will be an 11-member board made up of a majority of state officials, with one seat from the Salt Lake City Council and one seat from Salt Lake City International Airport, and other seats for stakeholders including Salt Lake County and West Valley City. Though an earlier version of the bill included a board appointment from Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, the final version did not.

City leaders, as well as members of the Salt Lake County Council and the Utah League of Cities and Towns, have decried the bill as an unconstitutional land and power grab since the port authority board, through an appeals panel, would have the power to ultimately override city administrative land use decisions.

They’ve also protested the port authority’s power to capture up to 100 percent of the project area’s tax increment. Over the next 25 years, the city estimates the port authority would take control of more than $1.4 billion in new tax revenue, including $360 million in new property tax revenues from Salt Lake City, $581 million from the Salt Lake City School District and $84 million from Salt Lake City libraries.

After the bill was abruptly changed in the session, Stevenson said he has removed himself from the discussions.

“If I stay in this, it looks to me like I will be shot at from two sides,” he said.

Still, Stevenson said the inland port authority is vital to the state’s interests.

“This is a big deal for the state of Utah. It could be the biggest economic development initiative the state has ever been involved in — bigger than Hill Air Force Base and bigger than the Point of the Mountain. It is important for those who are involved in this to move it forward.”

Opponents to the inland port authority have voiced objections that include environmental concerns — including the inland port becoming a repository for out-of-state coal shipments — but Stevenson said the coal component doesn’t seem practical.

“I don’t think it is something anyone should be concerned about,” noting the long distances to ship coal from central Utah to the Wasatch Front when other rail lines are an option.

This week, a federal judge in California struck down an Oakland, California, ordinance banning the handling of Utah and Wyoming coal at a deepwater port at a former Army base. That decision could pave the way for Utah coal to be exported from the West Coast.