Environmental group fighting Utah’s inland port holds protest outside a Salt Lake City real estate firm

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle McKee reads a letter in opposition of the Inland Port as environmental activist group Civil Riot holds a protest outside of Colmena Group’s office in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

Opponents of a huge industrial development in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant staged their third public protest Wednesday, this time targeting a real estate firm involved in the project.

Ten or so members of the environmental activist group Civil Riot gathered outside the offices of Colmena Group, a real estate development and investment company that is one of several seeking to broker deals in the inland port.

Clustered Wednesday at the business’ entrance on Wilmington Avenue in Salt Lake City, protesters read from a one-page letter addressed to Lance Bullen, a founding and managing partner at Colmena. They reportedly then walked to the back of the building and knocked on a few windows before departing.

The letter accuses the Salt Lake City-based company of putting its own financial gain ahead of “a strong, equitable and livable community” and urged workers to halt their participation in the project.

"We are no longer interested in politely asking those of you with power and influence to allow us a livable planet," Civil Riot organizer Michelle McKee said.

McKee said in an interview that Wednesday’s protest represented a shift in tactics intended to impede development of the port from going forward.

“The only way we will get their attention,” McKee said, “is if we can affect their bottom line.”

Created by the Utah Legislature in 2018 against the wishes of elected leaders in Salt Lake City, the inland port envisions creating a global trade and logistics hub on nearly 16,000 undeveloped acres on the eastern fringe of the Great Salt Lake.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has filed a lawsuit against the port, saying its creation was an unconstitutional usurping of the city’s authority over its own land use and taxation. Support for that lawsuit has recently become a source of friction between Biskupski and members of the Salt Lake City Council.

Backers say that developing the port — with its proximity to major freeways, railways and the Salt Lake City International Airport — is a historic chance to maximize the region’s economic potential, improve commercial transportation and provide thousands of new jobs.

Civil Riot has proven to be the most raucous among several activist groups fighting the project, which spans more than a fifth of the city’s total land mass. Its members contend the port threatens to worsen air quality, destroy wildlife and wetlands, and contribute to catastrophic climate change while only benefiting a privileged minority of residents.

The group has previously sought to disrupt two recent meetings of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board, a panel of government and business leaders created by state lawmakers to govern port development.

Its April 23 protest of a board meeting at North Star Elementary School led to the meeting being shut down, amid chants of “Abort the Port!” A similar demonstration earlier this month on Utah’s Capitol Hill led to scuffles and saw several protesters ejected by officers from Utah Highway Patrol. Civil Riot organizer Ethan Petersen was arrested.

Colmena is listed on promotional materials as one of at least four companies helping to develop the port, along with CBRE, a national commercial real estate brokerage; Wadsworth Development Group, based in Draper; and Stokes Stevenson, a North Logan real estate company.

And while declining to address the protests directly, Michael McCarlie, managing partner with DJM Consulting Group, said port opponents were overlooking several environmentally sustainable strategies being considered as part of the development. Those, McCarlie said, include boosting rail capacity to slow increases in polluting truck traffic, using renewable energy and the construction of more energy-efficient buildings.

He said Colmena was encouraged by the port authority’s “desire to create a project that is smart, forward-thinking, sustainable and clean.”

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