Gov. Gary Herbert has called the Utah Legislature into a special session this week to make changes to a controversial inland port planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.
Lawmakers will also address legislation for 10 other items, including a handful of tax policy changes, in the special session scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
Herbert issued the call at a news conference Monday morning after announcing a “consensus” with legislative leaders and members of the Salt Lake City Council on changes to the inland port.
“This set of recommendations, I think, will bring us together in what I consider a win-win, mutually beneficial approach on this very significantly important issue,” Herbert said.
The state hopes to turn about 20,000 acres of undeveloped land in northwest Salt Lake City into a foreign trade zone connecting imports and exports. The project drew strong objections from some Salt Lake City officials — including Mayor Jackie Biskupski — and residents over its implementation.
The authority has been tripped up by scandal since its creation. The board’s first meeting was cut short because several members had not completed required ethics reviews. House Speaker Greg Hughes – who had appointed himself to the board – resigned shortly after when it was revealed that he owned property within five miles of the port’s boundaries, which is prohibited.
The three-page list of changes includes shrinking the port authority’s boundaries, capping property taxes it can collect while setting aside 10 percent for affordable housing and clarifying an appeals process for land use.
“We’ve been able to address our consistent concerns in this draft bill to a great extent,” said Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall. “We know that we can’t effectively represent our residents’ concerns if we aren’t at that table.”
The announcement comes just days after Mendenhall and other council members met with Herbert and legislative leaders for more than two hours to negotiate changes. Biskupski dropped out of negotiations, citing a lack of transparency and public engagement.
“It’s not a matter of do we need the mayor,” Herbert said during the press conference. “We want the mayor. We want to have all of us together around the table as we work through this process.”
In a statement, Biskupski’s office said it was reviewing the draft legislation but had lingering concerns about the lack of transparency and public engagement in negotiations.
Deeda Seed, a former city councilwoman who now works for the Center for Biological Diversity, echoed those concerns after the press conference, noting that without draft legislation, it’s unclear what will really change.
“This is being touted as an enormous project that’s going to have huge significance for the state,” Seed said. “Our question is: ‘What’s the rush? Why isn’t there public engagement in a more robust way? Why aren’t our questions being answered?’”
Draft legislation was made public Monday evening. A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning at the State Capitol with a vote in both chambers later that day.