Community

Railroad yard in Rompot riles opponents

Cargill says facility would relieve downtown rail traffic

A sign marks prairie land as a pollinator zone by the city of Cedar Rapids in the Rompot neighborhood. While some call the tract a nuisance that attracts garbage and offroaders, an opponent of using it for a rail facility believes it’s a “diamond in the rough.” (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A sign marks prairie land as a pollinator zone by the city of Cedar Rapids in the Rompot neighborhood. While some call the tract a nuisance that attracts garbage and offroaders, an opponent of using it for a rail facility believes it’s a “diamond in the rough.” (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A neighborhood is no place for a rail yard, say several residents of Rompot, south of downtown Cedar Rapids.

The home of Tony Lippe, 48, was built two years ago about 100 feet from an overgrown, 28-acre field just south of Stewart Road and Otis Avenue SE that until recently was posted as a city “wildlife refuge.”

He calls it a “diamond in the rough.”

Now, agricultural giant Cargill hopes to build a $6.5 million switching and storage yard for up to 200 train cars there, prompting concerns from Lippe and others.

“My concern is all of the toxins and pollution,” Lippe said. “I’m going to get all of the diesel smoke. I have a 6-year-old. She can’t go outside. We can’t open the windows. I’m going to have to tell her, ‘Sorry, but where we live is going to shorten your life.’ ... That’s what I’m concerned about. I’ve put everything into this house.”

Cargill’s plans had surfaced last spring and advanced through the City Council with no public protest. At the time, The Gazette spoke to a few neighbors adjacent to the site who were supportive of the project.

Now, other neighbors have mobilized saying they were never contacted by the city or Cargill. They are distrustful of the city, which they believe is trying to ram the plans through, and Cargill, who they believe is understating them.

Cargill and city officials refuted several points.

For Cargill, the rail yard would allow railcar storage and switching in closer proximity to its corn milling plant on Otis Road SE, which as a byproduct would relieve rail traffic downtown.

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Cargill stores railcars at an Union Pacific yard north of downtown near Cedar Lake, leading to on average 25 railcars a day moving back and forth to the plant to load starch and corn sweetener products for delivery.

Owning its own site would offer Cargill savings and provide a place for light railcar maintenance, cleaning and “occasional” transloading material from railcars to trucks, according to the company.

“Building our own rail yard was a strategic business decision to keep us competitive in the marketplace,” Brian Bares, Cargill Cedar Rapids plant manager, said in a statement. “After assessing the significant cost associated to parking our rail cars at another location and the efficiencies we could gain by storing them closer, we decided it was best to build a rail yard ourselves. In doing so, the city also benefits from less rail car traffic through the downtown area.”

Cargill hopes to have the rail yard operating by next spring.

Residents like Lippe want to pump the brakes.

The site is situated feet from dozens of homes on one side and the Prairie Park Fishery — one of the city’s scenic recreation outposts — on the other. A Union Pacific rail line runs along the edge of the site.

“This is a nice area with native plants,” said Clark Urban, 27, who works in Cedar Rapids and uses the nature trails by the fishery. “If they did something like that it would poison the ecosystem and it would never recover.”

In addition to toxins some believe will be emitted, neighbors are concerned about a planned berm causing stormwater to back up on their properties, depressed home values, loud noise and a surge in truck traffic.

“When they are shifting box cars that will wake the dead,” said John Schriner, 71.

Kerry Sanders, 58, who has been leading the opposition and created a Citizens Against Cargill Facebook page, said the rail yard would violate zoning ordinances separating industrial activity from residential areas and noise ordinances. He wants Cargill to look elsewhere, such as one of the sites he has suggested to the company.

“They presented a small contained storage yard, and what they are building is some big industrial monstrosity,” Sanders said.

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Some neighbors are supportive, though, and say accusations against Cargill are inflated and some of the information being distributed is misleading.

“This is in my backyard,” Gary McClure said at an Oct. 9 council meeting. “I’ll take the railroad; I’ll take the noise.”

The rail yard would help clean up the overgrown site, ridding it of noxious weeds, garbage and four-wheelers that use the grounds at “all hours of night, all hours of daytime,” and the berm will help protect the neighborhood, he said.

Project plans submitted to the city contradict some claims against it. For example, the operations schedule is stated to be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. “No night work is anticipated,” according to the Cargill project description. “Our current plant processes do not involve nighttime switches and we do not foresee that changing in the future.”

Bares said Cargill contacted neighbors within 1,000 feet of the site, held two informational meetings in January, and incorporated some of the feedback. He acknowledged the outreach did not extend as far as it should have.

Cargill is planning to meet with neighbors on Nov. 5 to share information and address concerns, he said. The city also is expected to participate.

Some site improvements are intended to mitigate disruptions, including a landscaped, tree-lined 6-foot berm to dull noise and light pollution and offer a measure of flood protection. Stadium lights used to illuminate the area on winter afternoons would be shut off overnight.

Truck traffic would continue to flow through the plant on Otis Road and not the neighborhood, Bares said. Cargill reviewed five sites but four of them were not feasible, he said. He also rejected the noise allegations, noting the plant has been operating for years with rail traffic in compliance with city noise ordinances.

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Cargill’s interest in the public land prompted the city to initiate a request for proposals from anyone interested in buying it. Cargill was the only bidder.

Staff had recommended negotiating the land sale with Cargill, which according to a project proposal would offer $83,220 for it.

Jennifer Pratt, director of community development for Cedar Rapids, said the review process has not been completed.

Cargill still must provide a site plan, and those plans would be reviewed by the City Planning Commission and voted on by the City Council, a public process that could take several months, she said.

“We certainly do ask a developer to address the concerns of neighbors,” she said. “Typically, concerns are addressed in one of two ways. One, they provide additional information that demonstrates it will not be an issue. Or, two, they take steps to adjust plans to mitigate the concern, which could be done in a lot of ways.”

City Council member Dale Todd said the neighbors have some legitimate concerns to be addressed about noise and environmental impact, such as stormwater, but local industry also must be supported.

“Rerouting train traffic from downtown has been a long-term priority for everyone, and this helps accomplish some of that goal,” Todd said. “As a city, we need to embrace our industrial heritage. Our downtown has grown up around Quaker and Cargill and Penford (now Ingredion), so the reality is they need to coexist. But it is a fair question for neighbors to ask: Can you minimize the impact and create a win-win for all parties?”

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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