Wilson’s Senate campaign disclosures show how closely development and government can align

Wilson’s Senate campaign disclosures show how closely development and government can align
(Eric S. Peterson| The Utah Investigative Journalism Project. The South Station Apartments in South Jordan are located near the Daybreak Parkway TRAX station.)

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with KUER.

In his U.S. Senate campaign ad, Republican Brad Wilson, former speaker of the Utah House, leans into his career as a real estate developer.

He walks through a construction site and the camera cuts to Wilson swinging a sledgehammer into a pile of concrete blocks. They’re stenciled with the words “Biden’s Agenda” across them.

“For over 20 years, I’ve been building communities where our families and values can thrive. But today Joe Biden and the left want to tear it all down,” Wilson narrates.

As a state lawmaker, Wilson also leaned into his experience as a developer to help with legislation focused on growth and housing. He also made a private land investment that now stands to benefit from legislation he oversaw creating lucrative tax incentives for transit-oriented development projects. Wilson’s investment did not receive a direct tax incentive but would benefit from the economic ripple effects of having land so close to a major development that would receive an incentive.

It’s an example of how closely aligned state leaders and the businesses that make up Utah’s strong developer base can be.

Incentivizing transit-oriented development

In 2021, when Wilson was speaker of the House, the Legislature passed SB217 creating Housing Transit Reinvestment Zones, or HTRZs. This was a new creation to help address the state’s explosive growth. The bill created a process for cities to apply for zones where developers could receive tax incentives to build high-density housing near TRAX and rail lines.

Think more people, less space right next to TRAX and FrontRunner stops. The tax breaks could help developers afford the steel to build taller units instead of just spreading out. They could also build parking garages instead of taking up even more acreage with surface parking lots.

These developments would allow residents to live close to work and transit. This in turn could help improve air quality by reducing car trips.

“This is very new, very different for the state of Utah, but it’s something that needs to happen as we build out extensively along the Wasatch Front,” sponsor Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, said at the time in speaking for the bill on the Senate floor.

Research shows that transit-oriented development projects generally increase the value of surrounding properties by delivering sought-after, walkable environments for residents.

“It spurs and catalyzes development,” said Geeti Silwal, an expert on transit-oriented development and member of the Urban Land Institute’s Public Development and Infrastructure Council.

“It really helps to kind of trigger an investment around transit,” Silwal said.

The increase in property values is good news for some, like Wilson, who with partners bought land in South Jordan that later came to be surrounded by a newly created Housing Transit Reinvestment Zone.

(Eric S. Peterson| The Utah Investigative Journalism Project. The construction surrounding the Daybreak development in South Jordan, Utah, March 14, 2024.)

“The best project in the state”

In 2023, a special committee awarded one of the first Housing Transit Reinvestment Zones to the city of South Jordan and the Larry H. Miller Company. The plan was to develop roughly 100 acres around the Daybreak Express TRAX stop. The companies were awarded a tax incentive worth approximately $160 million for the new high-density development.

Although Wilson’s property did not receive a direct tax incentive, it is located across the street from the TRAX station and is surrounded by the new Daybreak development.

For John Pelissero, director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, Wilson’s private investment created a conflict of interest in his involvement in the HTRZ legislation.

“They [lawmakers] really shouldn’t be acting in any way to support a development project that they might financially benefit from,” Pelissero said.

Let’s step back a few years earlier.

In 2017, Utah lawmakers formed a task force to study transit-oriented development options. It was later that year Wilson’s company bought over 11 acres in South Jordan. And it’s that property that now stands to benefit from the South Jordan Housing Transit Reinvestment Zone.

Wilson declined to be interviewed for this story or to answer specific questions about the project. Through a spokeswoman, the campaign issued a statement calling the idea of a conflict of interest “downright absurd.”

“The tax break was a benefit to his competitors, put his project at a significant financial disadvantage, will allow his competitors to build twice as dense – and was passed years after his project at South Station was already under construction,” the statement read.

However, research from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute does confirm that property values near transit-oriented developments increase as well.

Wilson’s property did not receive a tax incentive, but that also has potential advantages. For example, the property is not required to provide affordable housing, while the Larry H. Miller Company is required under the tax incentive to make 10% of the project affordable — roughly 500 units.

Wilson’s property could also benefit from the Miller company’s plans to spend $70 million on nearby parks, performance venues, plazas and walking paths. The Miller proposal also seeks to add commercial office space in the area to attract workers to the location.

Pelissero said legislative leaders can wield a lot of influence, even if they don’t directly sponsor legislation themselves. They control the timing of legislation and “what gets on the docket to be voted on within the legislature.”

As such, Pelissero said leaders “should never place themselves in a position of affirmatively acting on some public policy question that they have a private or financial interest in.”

(Eric S. Peterson | The Utah Investigative Journalism Project. The South Station Apartments from a distance in South Jordan, Utah, March 14, 2024.)

Wilson advocated for the legislation, voted for it and, as the speaker of the House, picked a representative on the committee awarding the incentives.

His pick was Rep. Mike Schultz. R-Hooper. Other representatives come from local cities, the Utah Transit Authority, the Utah State Tax Commission and the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

In March 2023, when the committee awarded the incentive to South Jordan and the Larry H. Miller Company, Schultz congratulated the applicants on the proposal.

“This truly is, I think, one of the better projects — or if not the best project — in the state and probably the United States for that matter. So this is really neat. I’m excited to see the size of it. It’s a big project,” Schultz said.

Even with that ringing endorsement, Schultz admitted that he wished the companies would have set aside more toward affordable housing, compared to other HTRZ applicants. But when another committee member suggested placing a hard cash cap on the incentive so that it would not exceed $160 million, Schultz pushed back and said the application should be accepted as presented. That means the total incentive could potentially exceed $160 million.

Schultz did not respond to questions about the proposal or if Wilson had talked to him about the HTRZ or the 2021 legislation that created it. Nor would representatives of South Jordan City comment either.

In November 2021, Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams sent a letter to the Summit County Council defending the HTRZ legislation after criticism from a proposed zone in that community.

“Growth cannot be our enemy if we hope to remain an economic leader,” the letter stated.

Wilson’s federal campaign reports show that in 2023 he collected between $100,000 and $1 million in rents from South Station Apartments, the entity that jointly owns property adjacent to the South Jordan HTRZ. Those rents will likely increase according to the experts.

He and his partners are currently finishing construction on the second half of their parcel there.

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