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Inland Port In Court: SLC Argues Port Authority Violates The Utah Constitution

Photo of Salt Lake City attorney Samantha Slark
Trent Nelson
Salt Lake Tribune
The Utah Legislature violated state law by delegating municipal functions to the Inland Port Authority, Salt Lake City attorney Samantha Slark argued in court Monday.

Control over some 16,000 acres of undeveloped land in northwest Salt Lake City is in the hands of a Utah judge after he heard oral arguments Monday in a case challenging the Utah Inland Port.

Salt Lake City mayor Jackie Biskupski filed the lawsuit earlier this year, alleging that the Utah Legislature violated the state constitution when it created the inland port in 2018 and delegated land use and taxing authorities to the Utah Inland Port Authority.

The suit names the port authority, Attorney General Sean Reyes and Gov. Gary Herbert as defendants.

At the heart of the lawsuit is one sentence in the Utah Constitution —Article VI, Section 28 — also called the “ripper clause.”

It prohibits the Legislature from delegating “to any special commission, private corporation or association” the power to “make, supervise or interfere with any municipal improvement, money [or] property … or to perform any municipal functions.”

The city argued in front of Third District Court Judge James Blanch Monday that the law creating the Utah Inland Port does just that.

The law is unconstitutional because it delegates several municipal functions including zoning, planning and spending city tax dollars to a special commission — the Utah Inland Port Authority, city attorney Samantha Slark argued.

The “paramount purpose of the ripper clause in Utah is to prevent interference with local government,” she said.

But state attorneys argued that the legislation does not violate the ripper clause because the inland port authority was created to carry out state functions for a statewide project.

Photo of state attorney Lance Sorenson in court.
Credit Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
The Inland Port Authority was created for state functions, state attorney Lance Sorenson said in court Monday, responding to Salt Lake City’s arguments that its creation was unconstitutional.

“The state is better situated to keep an eye on this statewide project which includes multiple municipalities and satellite projects,” state attorney Lance Sorenson said.

He also argued that the port authority is not a “special commission” and that the Utah Legislature — not the port authority — is delegating tax dollars for the project.

“This is the Legislature doing what legislatures do,” Sorenson said.

After the hearing, Mayor Jackie Biskupski said city attorneys presented a “very strong case” and she expects a ruling in the city’s favor.

Judge Blanch did not indicate when he would rule, saying at the conclusion of the hearing that he would issue a written ruling as soon as he can.

Biskupski said the timing of the ruling matters, though, because she is leaving office at the end of the year. In the event of a ruling against Salt Lake City, the decision to appeal will be up to whoever occupies the mayor’s office at the time of the ruling. 

Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall has said she supports the lawsuit. “The state Legislature was wrong to steal our land and tax revenue to build an inland port,” she tweeted Monday.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office declined to comment after the hearing.

The inland port has drawn opposition from environmental advocates and west-side activists who say the project would worsen air pollution and harm migratory bird habitat near the Great Salt Lake.

Protestors have interrupted and shut down several inland port board meetings this year. A July protest at the Salt Lake Chamber offices, where then-board chair Derek Miller works as Chamber president, turned violent. Charges ranging from rioting to criminal trespass were later filed against 14 people in the incident.

Photo of security officers at the hearing.
Credit Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Security was tight at a court hearing over the Utah Inland Port, a controversial project which has sparked protests which disrupted public meetings. Judge James Blanch issued a strict court decorum order for the hearing.

Prior to Monday’s hearing, Judge Blanch issued a strict decorum order which prohibited bags, audible comments and “uncivil behavior” by spectators. Six Salt Lake County Sheriff’s deputies were posted throughout the courtroom to provide security. 

Once the hearing began, two deputies flanking the door barred most people from entering, though several spectators spent time watching court proceedings through windows in the courtroom doors.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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