SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City leaders are bracing for another turf battle against lawmakers on Capitol Hill this year.
City officials say they'll be closely watching for what they consider state overreach on at least two major issues in state lawmakers' crosshairs for the 2018 session: the city's 3,000-acre northwest quadrant slated for development — the project spurred by the relocation of the Utah State Prison — and the city's watershed authority.
"There is a desire to take over control of those two parts of the city," Mayor Jackie Biskupski said during a recent interview in her office.
Utah's capital city is no stranger to state leaders writing bills that city officials consider encroachment on their local authority. In past years, state vs. Salt Lake City battles have brewed on a variety of issues, from billboards to golf courses.
This year, it's land and water.
City officials say they're well-equipped to develop the northwest quadrant — what they hope will be a regional boon for manufacturing and distribution jobs — and continue managing the Big and Little Cottonwood canyon watersheds as they have for more than a century.
But state leaders say their intention isn't to strip authority from the local government, but rather ensure city officials don't have the only say in issues that impact not just the city but also surrounding areas.
In the final days of the legislative session last year, a final-hour bill sent Salt Lake City officials scrambling.
SB278 would dilute city control of the northwest quadrant's development to just one seat on a board of various other officials, including two members from the state Senate, two from the Utah House, one from Salt Lake County and other organizations.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, told the Deseret News in September that it was meant as a "warning shot" to Salt Lake City to be good partners with the state on the area's development, but since then "we've had issues resolved with the city."
But city officials say they're worried there will be a similar bill this year.
"They totally have made it clear that they don't want to leave the development of the northwest quadrant in the hands of Salt Lake City government," Biskupski said.
The mayor declined to say who from the state she was referring to because "those conversations are private," but she said the sentiment has been coming from "legislative leadership not wanting us to keep control."
Asked if there will be a bill filed regarding state control over the northwest quadrant, House Speaker Greg Hughes said, "I think there's a potential of that."
"With the prison going in, there's a lot of infrastructure going out to an area that otherwise probably would never be developed," Hughes said, noting that the property will host the largest state building ever constructed.
City and state officials are sharing the cost of the state prison's infrastructure. The city has projected cost of the first two major roads and lines for water, sewer, gas, fiber-optic cables and lighting to be $90 million, of which $47 million will come from the state based on agreements to pay for the prison's needed infrastructure.
"You're bringing in the water, the sewer, the infrastructure out there. You're taking that northwest quadrant and making it viable. We want to see highest and best use, and we want to see maybe a plan that really allows for the area to see its true potential," Hughes said.
Stevenson said he couldn't answer whether there will be a bill, as city officials suspect.
"We're just kind of weighing this right now to see what the possibilities are," he said. "If there's anything done, it will be in partnership with Salt Lake City.
"I'm a former mayor (of Layton). I understand cities can get really territorial," Stevenson added, but "sometimes there are big projects that need big players."
Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant has the potential to become a development so large it impacts jobs, transit and infrastructure for the entire state by building on the city's reputation as the crossroads of the West. The area is being eyed for an inland port or some type of global distribution port.
"It's a unique piece of property. You've got the airport, the freeway system that's interchangeable; you've got railroads," Stevenson said. "That's key and really needs to be weighed."
Councilman James Rogers, who represents Salt Lake City's west side, questioned why state officials think they know better than the city on how to develop the area.
"Who's better to take care of it than us?" he asked, noting that state officials complain when federal officials exercise control over them. "You know, it's the same thing that Salt Lake City feels. Who's better to take care of it than the government closest?"
Salt Lake City officials won't be the only ones watching closely for a bill. Cameron Diehl, director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said his organization will be watching, too.
"Whether it's the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City or any other portion of a city anywhere in the state, we are always concerned at the idea of the state stepping in and assuming traditional local government authorities over land use, taxation and economic development," Diehl said.
Another bill that has sent up red flags for Salt Lake City is one that would upend a century-old law that grants certain-size cities "extraterritorial" jurisdiction over watersheds — or Salt Lake City's authority to restrict dogs, livestock or other activities in the Wasatch Canyons that could pollute the watershed.
HB135, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, would remove that authority in favor of cities, counties and special districts deferring to environmental safeguards already in place through health department ordinances and state water quality laws.
Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City's public utilities director, said she's "a little bit puzzled" by the bill.
"I don't know what the intent of the bill is, but the concern I have is that it allows additional state control over municipal collection and distribution of water, and that could have impacts on economic development within a municipality, land use within a municipality, construction of water delivery systems, which is highly technical and requires training," Briefer said.
She said the bill would create a "disconnect" between the liability of the water supplier and put that responsibility under another agency without accountability, with potential negative impacts on the watershed millions rely on.
"It presents issues of transparency, regulatory liability and public accountability," Briefer said, adding that health departments and agencies such as the state's Division of Water Quality don't have the resources, staff or training that the city does to manage water quality. Instead, those organizations set the standards and enforce them.
But Noel found it ironic that city officials complained of state overreach when its watershed authority reaches up into canyons miles away.
"I'm not against local control. What I'm against is extraterritorial jurisdiction that covers the entire watershed from ridgeline to ridgeline," he said.
Noel contends that Salt Lake City's authority is outdated and unfairly restricts development in the canyons and private property rights.1 comment on this story
"This bill doesn't do anything that will jeopardize the watershed, but it will help streamline regulation, remove some overlapping bureaucracy and strengthen, I believe, local control," he said.
The Utah League of Cities and Towns has not yet taken a position on Noel's bill because it hasn't yet had a chance to speak with Noel, Diehl said.
"With any bill, we ask what problem it's trying to solve, what are the potential unintended consequences, and how it will impact all cities. And these are all questions that need to be addressed with that bill," he said.