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Sugar House Journal

Envision Utah’s Inland Port public input session becomes an unexpected scenario

Apr 23, 2019 14h45 ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Many Envision Utah scenario-planning sessions productively engaged residents to help determine growth. The session at the county went quite differently. (Photo Credit Envision Utah)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

It looked as if the Envision Utah team had not planned for the possible scenario and associated externalities of a blind-siding public input session.

On March 28, Envision Utah, the scenario-planning group contracted by the State of Utah to engage and manage resident input about a Salt Lake Inland Port, held a public input meeting at the Salt Lake County (SLCO) Council Chambers.

Instead of guiding county residents through Envision Utah’s trademark “scenario-planning” exercises to elicit public opinion, community-planning evangelists awkwardly tried to steer a meeting gone awry.

According to an anonymous SLCO elected official attending the meeting, “[The meeting] clearly got away from them.” 

In the end, SLCO County Mayor Jenny Wilson helped quell the meeting and get things back on track, reminding attendees of the overall big-picture process and that public opinion comes in stages on the project.

Comment after comment, and then, question after question from audience members expressed frustration, uncertainty and doubt about what many perceive as a “done-deal” situation where Envision Utah is nothing more than a “PR firm,” a hired-gun under the guise of credibility advancing state desires for development of a robust Inland Port economic engine to provide jobs, and with those jobs, tax dollars aplenty for the state and what the audience broadly depicted as a “small group of greedy landowners.”

Inland Port inside

Dubbed “a win for Utah,” and a “generational opportunity,” by the State, The Inland Port is a visionary project for vast undeveloped swaths of land on the westside of Salt Lake County are transformed into a bustling shipping destination, leveraging railways for transportation to and fro.

The Utah Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 234 this session, created the Inland Port Authority to manage the project. Salt Lake City swiftly filed a lawsuit, challenging the legislation, and charging “gross state overreach” in what the City viewed as a 16,000-acre land grab and a project the Mayor’s office perceived as a rogue Salt Lake City Council venturing into discussions with the state, without the authority to do so.

Environmental advocates are up in arms, with regards to destroying natural habitats and committing to heavy development in a valley already choking and being fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for poor air quality.

So far, public comment sessions for Inland Port have been docile, even predictable, until the session at SLCO. Prior to that night, three public input sessions occurred. Envision Utah has posted presentations given and comments received from each of those meetings on the Inland Port website.

The SLCO session

Twenty-five minutes into the meeting, Envision Utah President and Chief Operating Officer Ari Bruening, who conducted the session, said: “The question is not – ‘Is it going to develop?’ – but [rather], ‘How [is it is going to develop]?’”

From there, the audience went into questions and comments, challenging Envision Utah’s intentions as well as the assumption that development needed to occur. Also occurring was a kind of public engagement still new to the Salt Lake community: finger snapping.

“It’s a peaceful, impactful protest,” explained Darin Mann, action director for SLC Air Protectors, an activist group that has not yet established itself as a 501(c) or nonprofit organization. “[Finger snapping is] a common meeting etiquette that has happened – politely agreeing with the speaker’s position… a natural thing that has coalesced… not too disruptive… but makes a point.”

In an article “Why Snapping Is the New Clapping,” The New York Times calls snapping “a phenomenon” and expressive of a social-media culture with instant feedback. However, the practice of snapping approval dates back to Beat Generation poets and maybe even before.

City Journals found a group of three 20-something men who were quick to comment, quick to complain, and quick to click, but completely paused when asked their names for comment in the article. Saying that they were geographically representative of Liberty Park, West Jordan, and downtown Salt Lake City, the three men said they feared repercussions in the job market if they went on the record with their comments.

Snapping aside

The insistence of a room where, according to Alan Naumann, local activist and contributor to Green News, there were 30 negative comments and only one in support of development of the Inland Port area, presented a somewhat unique situation for Envision Utah.

Often seen as “the good guys” in seeking to leverage a process for responsible development, in this situation, Envision Utah was put on the defensive. “We saw some pent-up frustration and people who felt like they haven’t had a chance to be heard,” said Envision Utah’s Bruening. 

The snapping and overall impact of the group did make a mark on the process. Bruening said that Envision Utah is going to consider broadening the list of environmental groups it engages and more vigorously court westside public opinion (e.g. Poplar Grove and Rose Park communities in Salt Lake City, as well as West Valley City and Magna in Salt Lake County and parties in Tooele County.)

To encourage more public input, especially in the demographic which would be most impacted by the creation of a Utah Inland Port, Bruening said Envision Utah “may be adding another public session or two” and will amp up promotion of its online survey. Envision Utah has already purchased Facebook ads, seeking more input.

At press time, the Inland Port website’s public meeting section had no additional public comment meetings scheduled. However, residents are able to take the survey by just clicking a button on the site.

Bruening, contradicting the sentiments of the SLCO meeting, indicated the process is yet young. “We are in the first phase of the process,” he said.

Mann, when asked who would be a more neutral party than Envision Utah, for exploring development-related matters, responded: “Good question… Maybe the County could step up a little bit. It would put them in an interesting predicament, but with their duty as public servants, they could facilitate those discussions.”