116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Cargill has started work on a contentious rail yard between the Rompot neighborhood and Prairie Park Fishery, upsetting some residents who are holding out hope for a miracle to put a stop to the construction after court battles against the city have so far failed.
The $6.5 million, 12-track, 200-car rail yard will go on 28 acres at Stewart Road SE to provide supply chain stability and protect jobs at Cargill’s corn-milling plant, at 1710 16th St. SE, not far from the construction site, company officials said. Residents have railed against the project for fear it would create noise and air pollution, erode property values and pose safety hazards.
The rail yard is expected to be operational by November, though residents have appeals pending in the state Supreme Court. Cargill plans to start work on the rail yard portion of the project in the summer, but preliminary work is underway now.
Officials with Cargill say they have incorporated feedback from neighborhood residents in the approach to construction, design and operations for the rail yard to minimize disruption. Feedback has come from City Council and town hall meetings as well as other discussions, including a series of virtual meetings.
“We’ve really tried to take to heart suggestions that come to make this as safe as possible and as seamless as possible in the neighborhood,” said Eric Ruttum, a regional build project manager with Cargill.
Design of a dogleg berm screening the rail yard is being finalized but will stay on Cargill property, Ruttum said. For safety and security, he said there will be fencing inside the berm “well on our property so that people outside will look at a berm instead of looking at a fence.”
Atop the berm will be plants that are native to Iowa recommended by either Iowa State University Extension or Marion-based nonprofit Trees Forever, Ruttum said.
“We’re using the experts to tell us what trees to plant to make sure that we have the best trees for the animals and flora and fauna that will live there,” Ruttum said.
More trees — also native species — also will be planted to shield the rail yard from Prairie Park Fishery on the southern end of the property, he said. More than 200 trees and plants will be added on the property.
Some residents have lamented the sale of previously city-owned prairie pollinator space on the property for the rail yard, raising concerns about the destruction of the environment. But Dan Pulis, manager of Cargill’s Cedar Rapids plant, said the acreage of pollinators in the area will increase by 25 percent, to 35 acres from an original 28. Cargill purchased a tilled agricultural ground on the property with the intention of donating it to the city to establish and maintain it as pollinator space, he said, and will leave the conservation easement as pollinator space.
Those in opposition to the rail yard have also raised concerns over further industrial intrusion into the neighborhood after Cargill’s move to buy a house in the area. Kerry Sanders, spokesperson with the Protect the Prairie Park Corridor group in opposition to the project, noted Cargill had purchased properties after the 2008 flood near its corn-milling plant.
The Gazette reported in 2012 that Cargill had acquired at least 23 parcels in the four years since the flood in the general area bounded by its corn milling plant at 1710 16th St. SE, Sinclair Park, the Cedar River and 15th Ave. SE “as a buffer and for possible use in the future,” a spokesperson said at the time. Most were purchased directly from homeowners who lost their homes in the flood, although some were purchased from the city or from lending institutions, according to the article.
Pulis said there is no intent to rezone the property and that the conservation easement on the northern end near Otis Road SE indicates “we’re not looking to drive these rails any further toward the community than what we need today.”
“The business decision to buy a house will be solely just that, a business decision,” Pulis said.
Ruttum also acknowledged that some residents feared the rail yard construction would force more water into the neighborhood in the event of flooding. After looking at the volume of stormwater detention below flood elevation on this property, he said Cargill will increase the detention volume by more than 80 percent compared with the 100-year flood plain and add 14 percent volume under the 500-year flood plain.
Additionally, Ruttum said 35-foot stadium-style lights that had been planned during operation hours in the dark, from around 5 to 7 p.m., have been eliminated to make the rail yard less visible and disruptive. There now will be a couple of motion-activated security lights by the building.
He said there were plans for an office and storage building, but the office facility will now be at the corn-milling plant.
Site work started last Monday with some tree removal. Cargill officials said all workers and truckers have had a safety orientation and pre-mobilization meeting to review the importance of being courteous to anyone on the road and of following proper procedures on-site. A third-party safety consultant also will oversee construction daily.
Residents hope for ’miracle’
Democratic state Sen. Rob Hogg, a resident of the neighborhood, in 2019 filed two lawsuits against the city he represents — challenging the vote to rezone the land to industrial use and the vote to change the future land use map. Numerous neighbors and others in opposition to the rail yard have joined the lawsuits.
District Court and Supreme Court judges have denied a motion to stay the project pending the appeal to the higher court.
“It’s horrific for the neighborhood and the environment. This could be any residential neighborhood in the city,” Hogg said, adding he hoped that “a miracle happens and we can still stop” the construction.
Sanders said residents want to work as a team with Cargill to meet community needs and provide the company with what it wants. As it stands, he said he felt that there has not been sufficient time at the recent town halls for residents to digest information Cargill officials provide and respond.
“There’s supposed to be a spirit of cooperation and a sense of dialogue, meaning a two-way dialogue,” Sanders said.
He said he hopes the company does not stray from a development agreement, though residents have insisted there are alternatives to a rail yard in this location.
“We want to make sure they play by the rules — the rules that everybody agreed they were going to play by,” Sanders said, calling the City Council’s agreement with Cargill “deeply unfortunate.”
Sixth District Court Judge Mary Chicchelly in January ruled against a motion to stay the matter, or effectually prevent the city and Cargill from proceeding with construction. She wrote that the project is “clearly is a large one in which Cargill likely would incur significant damages if a delay is imposed” and was not persuaded that the plaintiffs’ bond entry of $1,000 was sufficient to cover the damages.
In ruling against the cases in July, Chicchelly wrote that the plaintiffs and Protect the Prairie Park Corridor “have not overcome the strong presumption of legality” in reviewing the city’s decisions on amending the future land use map and rezoning. The city’s actions “were not unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious,” Chicchelly wrote in both rulings.
Hogg said he remains hopeful for the appeal despite those rulings. The key issues still in contention, he said, are the city’s role in applying for land use changes and what he described as its failure to follow the Flood Control System master plan and procedures for making land use changes.
Chicchelly previously wrote that the court would not weigh in on the “wisdom or propriety” of the city’s judgment, but that the court did not find that the city misled the public or the city Planning Commission. She also wrote that the city had investigated the implications for its comprehensive plan, including flood protection, and “considered the competing interests” before making a decision.
Items on a City Council agenda earlier this month related to the execution of Cargill’s development agreement, including the transfer of deeds and coordination of routes during construction, riled up community members making a final plea for construction to stop.
Mayor Brad Hart acknowledged the public comments from concerned opponents, but said these were not new actions.
“These are the next steps in the agreement previously approved by council in December of 2019,” he said. “ … There are no new policy issues for consideration today on that matter.”
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