SALT LAKE CITY — The state's top court is now deliberating the future of the inland port.
In arguments on Wednesday, Utah Supreme Court justices peppered attorneys for both Salt Lake City and the state. But some justices signaled they had serious concerns about the state designating one-fifth of the city's land mass to be the inland port, overriding local powers.
"There is now an entity that is not accountable to the electorate, that is spending tax money that is raised only from the electorate from a particular area," said Justice Deno Himonas. "And I will tell you that is perhaps the most troubling aspect of all of this to me."
While the inland port project has largely faced pushback for environmental reasons, Salt Lake City's lawsuit centers around taxing authority. The city's arguments essentially accuse the state of an "illegal land grab" when thousands of acres were swept up in the massive development project west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
Then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski sued over the project. A lower court judge rejected Salt Lake City's arguments. Mayor Erin Mendenhall has continued the lawsuit, appealing to the Utah Supreme Court.
Samantha Slark, the attorney for Salt Lake City, argued that laws are designed to block what the Utah State Legislature did when it created the Inland Port Authority, dictating what is done with the land and taking a portion of the tax money from it.
"You’ve delegated all this planning authority to an unelected, independent board, which drives how a municipal development evolves out there and the city at the end of the day ends up holding the bill," she told the Court.
But lawyers for the state and the Inland Port Authority argued that the project will benefit all.
"It is the position of the port that this project will benefit the state as a whole," said IPA attorney Evan Strassberg. "But at the end of the day the city also keeps 25% of the increment."
The inland port is a massive import-export center that bypasses a traditional customs port. It has been billed as one of the largest development projects in state history. The project has faced heated opposition, particularly from environmentalists, who have argued it will increase air quality problems already along the Wasatch Front and its proximity to the Great Salt Lake will also harm the already fragile ecosystem there. Previous protests of Inland Port Authority meetings have resulted in arrests.
The Utah State Legislature has passed bills to advance the project. The most recent bill creates a $75 million fund to fuel rural Utah portions of the port project. Governor Spencer Cox has said he is supportive of the inland port project, and the Inland Port Authority has tried to emphasize "green" aspects of the project.
Justice Paige Petersen pressed the state repeatedly on its defenses to the creation of the inland port. She pointedly questioned why Salt Lake City appeared to be singled out for having its land utilized for the project when the legislature isn't doing the same to rural communities being looked at for satellite hubs.
"Why is that same analysis not being applied consistently across the state for the development of the inland port?" she asked Deputy Utah Solicitor General Stanford Purser.
"The port is developing in stages," he replied. "It's no reason to say it lacks uniform operation of laws."
While Chief Justice Matthew Durrant acknowledged "it’s a very important case," the Court gave no indication when it might rule. Meanwhile, development around the inland port continues with warehouses going up.
"Salt Lake City has continued to pursue this case because it is critical to defending the traditional municipal authority of all Utah's 249 cities and towns," Mayor Mendenhall said in a statement after the hearing. "If the Utah Supreme Court rules in favor of the State, it would have devastating impacts on municipal land use and taxing authority. I was very impressed by senior city attorney Sam Slark’s clear and convincing arguments, and look forward to a decision by the Court."
It is expected that as soon as development begins on the inland port itself, environmental groups will launch their own litigation.