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Cedar Rapids City Council advances rezoning for salvage yard near Hawkeye Downs
Board of Adjustment will first have to consider approving salvage yard use
CEDAR RAPIDS — As Hawkeye Downs looks to refresh its property and find new ways to draw residents and visitors to the racetrack amid financial woes, the nine-member Cedar Rapids City Council was split but ultimately advanced a rezoning to make way for a salvage yard on the property.
Roger Cassill, the owner of Sunline — an auto salvage company — and Hawkeye Downs, requested rezoning the approximately 94-acre property at 4400 Sixth St. SW from light industrial to general industrial district.
Some council members raised questions over Hawkeye Downs’ long-term plans, as the nonprofit has received city funds to support its operations as a tourist attraction and community amenity. It has received thousands of dollars over the years through a slice of hotel-motel tax funds the city reaps from overnight guests — for instance, $35,000 in November.
The city also in 2022 awarded the organization $50,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds as part of money given to nonprofits to support recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The site is currently used as a car racing center, convention hall and storage on 88 acres. The proposal would keep those uses and add a salvage yard to the northeast nine acres as Sunline would be relocated from off-site to this property.
Cassill, addressing the council, said he is in a due diligence period with a large national company on the sale of Sunline’s current property, but could not disclose which company.
The salvage yard proposal would be subject to approval as a conditional use by the Board of Adjustment.
The council advanced rezoning in a 6-2 vote. Council member Dale Todd was absent. The City Planning Commission recommended approval Jan. 5.
The intention when purchasing the salvage yard more than a year ago was to clean it up and turn it into a late-model facility instead of a site for old junk cars, Cassill said.
Motorists driving down Sixth Street SW see thousands of junk cars now, but Cassill is proposing the new site would include a nine-foot tall steel corrugated fence and exterior landscaping on all four sides. An 85-by-300-foot building would enclose some operations. There’d be a 100-foot buffer between rights of way and the site.
“It’s at street level, so when we put the nine-foot fence there, you won’t see down in,” Cassill said.
When he began work on the property, Cassill said the city planned road work on Ingleside Drive SW, and then the unidentified company approached him about purchasing the property. That paused work on fencing.
As for concerns about the environmental impact, Cassill said the process of crushing junk cars at the salvage company doesn’t involve spilling oil, gas or antifreeze as was done in the past.
“That’s completely changed in the last 10 years and it’s changing every day,” Cassill said.
He said staff are “diligently” working to crush older cars and bring in new ones that are sold nationwide. Sunline has increased sales well over $1 million a year and added 10 employees, according to Cassill.
“It’s a good thing for Cedar Rapids at that point,” Cassill said.
The salvage use could not expand elsewhere on the site once the Board of Adjustment gives the OK for a predetermined area to be used for that purpose. Salvage use could continue where Sunline is now, north of the site, under a different owner and possibly a smaller footprint, Development Services Manager Ken DeKeyser said.
Council member Ashley Vanorny said Hawkeye Downs is a “feature” in District 5, the area she represents that encompasses much of the southwest quadrant. She moved to table the vote for a later date because she said she wanted a broader conversation about Hawkeye Downs’ long-term picture.
“I personally don’t feel like I have enough information here,” Vanorny said. “ … I think there is a broader conversation that we need to have about more comprehensive plans before I feel secure in voting on this.”
Council member Scott Olson disclosed he is a member of the board of Hawkeye Downs, a nonprofit, and said he would not recuse himself from the vote because there is no financial conflict of interest, as the board does not own Hawkeye Downs.
The council last year narrowed ethics language in the city charter to limit top elected and appointed officials from discussing or voting on matters where they have or could have a “personal financial gain,” barring them from weighing in on matters where they have a financial interest.
Olson said Cassill recently presented to the board plans that included cleaning up the site with landscaping, trees, buffering and fencing. He said he thought “what’s been verbally expressed is going to work” to safeguard Hawkeye Downs’ future.
“Without additional revenue, Hawkeye Downs will probably not exist anymore,” Olson said. “ … Roger has a plan that I think has a chance of being very successful.”
Olson noted the council’s vote Tuesday was to change the zoning of the site from one industrial zone to another. The council was not approving the design of the salvage yard, but by advancing the rezoning would give Cassill a chance to seek conditional use approval from the Board of Adjustment to use the site as a salvage yard.
“I’m excited that we have a new owner and there’s a chance of this site being improved dramatically,” Olson said.
Council member Ann Poe, former executive director of Hawkeye Downs, agreed with Vanorny and voted against rezoning. But council member Tyler Olson moved to advance the rezoning request on its first reading and leave the details of the conditional use to the Board of Adjustment.
Though Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell initially seemed poised to support tabling consideration of the rezoning, she joined Olson and four other council members in advancing it.
The rezoning request will return to council for a second and possible third reading at its noon Feb. 14 meeting.
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