SALT LAKE CITY — Despite calls from Salt Lake City leaders, residents and some county officials to veto the controversial bill establishing an inland port authority in the city's northwest quadrant, Gov. Gary Herbert on Friday signed it.
In a letter to House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser included in the news release announcing he had signed SB234, Herbert indicated he plans to call a special session to make amendments to the bill.
"Although the bill is not yet perfect, it does allow the state and local governments to move forward on this significant project," Herbert wrote. "I look forward to working with the Legislature, Salt Lake City and other stakeholders on technical amendments and other minor adjustments in preparation for a special session."
SB234 creates the Utah Inland Port Authority, a new governing body 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 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 signed by the governor does 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.
Herbert said last week he would sign the bill with the intent to make changes later. Starting Monday, the governor had been meeting with Biskupski, legislators and others to hear concerns about the bill — and in Friday's letter, the governor said "it is important to address four concerns" raised by Biskupski.
Those concerns include 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 the Salt Lake City mayor, Herbert said.
"In my recent meetings with both of you," Herbert said in his letter to Hughes and Niederhauser, "we all agreed that these are legitimate concerns that we can and should address. They do not, however, rise to the level of a veto."
The governor asked Hughes and Niederhauser to "study each of these issues in the interim so that I can call the Legislature into a special session in the coming months to modify and improve what is already a good bill for Utah's continued growth and success."
Biskupski said in a statement that although city officials are "disappointed" the governor didn't veto the bill, "we appreciate his willingness to call a special session" to address the city's concerns.
"SB234, as enacted, creates uncertainty for development and may cause delays, but we remain committed to an inland port moving forward quickly and successfully," Biskupski said. "We will continue to work in good faith with the governor, legislators, residents and property owners to ensure the issues of local authority are resolved.”
Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall also said she is "disappointed" a veto didn't happen, but "we appreciate the governor's acknowledgment of the critical issues that need to be addressed in a special session."
Mendenhall said city leaders have been told that the session would be coming in May.
However, it remains to be seen whether the House and Senate will have the appetite to make such changes. Both bodies passed SB234 on the second-to-last day of the 2018 session, after making sweeping changes on the House floor, which were approved by the Senate just 30 minutes later.
Hughes has disputed the city's complaints that SB234 usurps city land use decisions. In an interview Friday, the speaker argued the land use authority still resides in the jurisdictions, "Even if you've heard otherwise, that is the case." He also said seats on the board must be fair for all players, like Salt Lake County and West Valley City, not just Salt Lake City.
"There needs to be an equilibrium," Hughes said.
The House speaker noted that before the final version of SB234 was passed, Salt Lake City opposed all other versions presented throughout the session, and "there was never this migrating over to neutrality or support," despite negotiations with the state.
"If we'd like to continue that discussion in the spirit of finding common ground. We'll continue to do that," Hughes said.
But will city and state leaders be able to find common ground in a special session, even though they weren't able to throughout the 2018 general session?
"On my side of the table, I am very confident we can find that agreement," Hughes said. "But, again, it will take some agreement and that will remain to be seen."
Some give from Salt Lake City, the speaker said, may be needed.
But Lara Fritts, Biskupski's economic development director, said she's not certain that can happen.
"I'm not sure how much more room we have to give," Fritts said, noting that the size of the inland port authority's jurisdiction is nearly 1/3 of city land, and city officials may not want to budge on city land use authority.
"And in terms of the tax increment?" she said. "We can't give any more than 100 percent."
Last week, Biskupski told the Deseret News that if the state implements the bill, there "is opportunity for a lawsuit." Mendenhall said if the Legislature doesn't make the needed changes to the bill, "we will keep all of our options on the table."
"I don't believe any party wants the development of the port to be delayed, as would be the consequence of this bill going into action without critical changes," she said.24 comments on this story
Salt Lake City Councilman Charlie Luke tweeted a statement criticizing the governor's decision to sign SB234 "despite his acknowledgment of four issues that remain unresolved."
"I will continue working with my colleagues and others to find legislative improvements that have to be done in another legislative session, but let's be clear — the time to correct the bill was before it became law," Luke said.
"Understanding the city's concerns while still signing the bill into law causes me to question the sincerity of the governor's words," Luke continued. "Please prove me wrong, Gov. Herbert."