Government

Cargill girds for third round of Rompot vs. rail yard

Neighbors fume as votes appear to be lining up for agriprocessor

Residents look through documents supplied by Cargill during an Oct. 16 gathering at Cedar Valley Park in Cedar Rapids. The agribusiness is trying for a third time to gain approval to build a rail yard close to the Rompot residential neighborhood. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Residents look through documents supplied by Cargill during an Oct. 16 gathering at Cedar Valley Park in Cedar Rapids. The agribusiness is trying for a third time to gain approval to build a rail yard close to the Rompot residential neighborhood. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Multibillion-dollar international agriprocessors are not often underdogs, especially when matched against a small, modest-income neighborhood.

But after plans to build a rail yard on city-owned land in Rompot have stumbled twice, Cargill is trying a third time to win over a City Council majority.

Cargill officials say they are changing little in their strategy to persuade the council — and the neighbors. They are undeterred by their inability over two years to gain approval for a $6.5 million rail car storage and switching yard, nor the vocal pushback from neighbors who don’t want it in their quiet southeast neighborhood.

“From the beginning, we have not heard there was disapproval from a city perspective, so we are just going through the process,” said Dan Pulis, manager of Cargill’s corn processing plant, 1710 16th St. SE.

While the council didn’t support a previous application, “We also heard there was council support. This is city process at its best and we are going to follow that to get to the next step.”

Cargill wants the city to change its future land use map and its current land use rules to allow an industrial rail yard in a residential neighborhood. The city staff has supported the project throughout — with caveats. But the council, which has the ultimate say, has been conflicted.

Elected officials have said they recognize the importance of keeping one of the city’s largest employers healthy and happy. But they’ve also faced heavy lobbying from neighbors, some of whom have grown increasingly distrustful of Cargill and the city.

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Cargill initially sought in 2018 to acquire city-owned land at a site dubbed the “Stewart Road property” at the south end of Rompot. But after heavy backlash from neighbors, the city hit pause later that year. Cargill in early 2019 identified another site dubbed the “farm property” at the north end of Rompot. But in August, the City Council failed to approve the request after becoming uneasy with the staff’s recommendation they define Cargill as an “essential service.”

City officials said the “essential service” designation would allow the city to place more restrictions on the land, but some neighbors and council members questioned whether that approach was legal.

Last month, Cargill went back to the Stewart Road property, applying to rezone 16.7 acres of a 27.7 acre site from suburban residential to general industrial and to amend the future land use map at Stewart Road and Otis Avenue SE for a 200-car, 12 track rail yard. The company would acquire the land from the city if the rezoning goes through at a price to be determined, according to the city.

The matter is due before the City Planning Commission for a recommendation on Nov. 7, and then to the council for a public hearing and three rounds of votes at dates to be determined, likely before year’s end.

Neighborhood’s fears

After the farm property proposal failed, neighbors felt a momentary relief. But for many, their concerns have returned.

“I am concerned if we get this it will open the door to more and more industry in our neighborhood,” said John Rosche, 59, who lives on Otis Road SE and has been “totally opposed” since he learned of the project.

Many neighbors said they were not informed early in 2018 when the city land was up for sale and Cargill was the lone applicant, and that Cargill didn’t notify people who would be most directly impacted.

As neighbors discovered the plans, they organized and staged an at-times confrontational yet effective defense — while at times using questionable information.

Key points of opposition are that the rail yard would create noise and air pollution, erode property values and pose safety hazards. Plus, a rail yard would undermine the serenity of nearby Prairie Park Fishery and recreational trails, they have said.

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Rob Hogg, a Democratic state senator who lives about a block and half from the proposed site, said Rompot should not bear the burden of Cargill needing a rail yard, and it is unfair of the city to force the neighbors to “take one for the team.”

People rely on zoning rules to make decisions and investments, he said.

“If they are doing this in our residential parkland neighborhood, they could be doing this in anyone’s neighborhood,” Hogg said. “Was the city serious when they designated this a greenbelt?”

Jeremiah Kenny, 39, who lives close to the site, is frustrated by what he says is Cargill’s lack of communication. He was among about 50 people who attended a public meeting Cargill hosted as part of the city’s process.

Cargill held an open house Oct. 16 at Cedar Valley Park. An ice cream truck provided free cold treats.

None of the top company officials who have been involved in the plans attended. Instead, four employees staffed the event with poster boards and sheets of information and a box for submitting questions.

The staff did not respond to questions from reporters, and several neighbors said they had a similar experience.

“How do you consider this a public meeting without someone here to answer questions?” Kenny asked.

Hogg, who also was there, described the event as “very strange.”

Outreach changes

Perhaps the biggest change in Cargill’s third attempt at a rail yard is its communications strategy. Instead of large community meetings, which in the past turned hostile, the company is meeting with small groups of neighbors where its staff can lay out the plan and dispel rumors, Pulis said.

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“Individuals have felt shut out and didn’t have a voice in the process,” Pulis said. “The individual approach is more productive. We get information directly, unabridged into the hands of people who are interested. ... It helps clear up misperceptions about what the project is and how it will operate. Every time we have a conversation, people come away saying, ‘Oh, that is not what I was told.”

Rumors about the scope of operations, future industrial expansion and pollution need to be dispelled, he said.

“People want to know, ‘Is it a 24-hour wake me up in the middle of the night operation?’ and that is not the case,” Pulis said, noting the agreement with the city would allow the rail yard to operate only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., with limited exceptions.

The primary locomotive would be an Environmental Protection Agency Tier 3 or Tier 4-compliant locomotive — a regulation strengthening emission requirements, according to Cargill.

“These are not the locomotives of old that are going down the tracks belching black smoke,” Pulis said.

Meanwhile, Cargill is soliciting feedback on what to do with the 11 acres of property it’s not asking to be rezoned. A berm of at least 10 feet tall is planned for aesthetics to block sight lines and noise, and a pollinator zone with native plantings and trees are also being considered. The berm would not provide flood protection, Pulis said.

Some support

Cargill has won over some neighbors.

Rick Stanek, 48, who lived near the farm site and was among the most vocal opponents, has warmed to the new site.

“It seems like there’s a growing group of people who realize a rail yard is going to come,” he said.

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Stanek and his wife, Diane, said the more they listened, the more that information Cargill provided disarmed some concerns. Cargill is trying to work with neighbors and has agreed to abide by the same conditions the city was going to require under the essential service designation, they said.

Gary and Nancie McClure’s backyard abuts the site and they support Cargill. As is, in their view, the site attracts trouble from teens and others, as well as serves s a dumping ground.

“At least it will be cared for,” Gary McClure said.

Why a rail yard?

Cargill has said a rail yard is needed for it to remain competitive in its market and protect its 400 jobs in Cedar Rapids.

Pulis said 70 percent of all the corn plant’s business goes out on rail. Customer orders require it to have 25 railcars per day coming and going from the plant.

Costs were rising, which prompted Cargill to first devise the plan to build its own storage yard instead of continue using the Union Pacific yard on C Avenue NE near Cedar Lake, he said.

In the past six or seven months, the matter has grown more dire as Union Pacific has limited storage to 75 cars, about half of which are full, he said.

“That’s 40 empty cars available to our plant, or two days of cars,” Pulis said. “Any hiccups in rail operations and it leaves us short in our ability to load. ... Several incidents have caused us to shut down because of not having the inventory of cars. Having our own yard with storage gives us greater stability.”

Site gains traction

Despite the setbacks, the latest Stewart Road proposal appears on the verge of assembling the five City Council votes needed to pass.

For one thing, Cargill is requesting to rezone only a portion of the property, which makes it harder for opponents to force a three-quarters supermajority vote — seven of the nine-member council — rather than a simple majority vote for approval.

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This higher bar for approval can occur if property owners within 200 feet of the site petition against the rezoning. But only eight private properties fall within 200 feet, and none have formally opposed this latest proposal, the city said.

Second, several council members have said they recognize Cargill’s need for a rail yard. Some simply opposed the use of “essential services” as the mechanism for the project, while others didn’t like the farm property as the location.

Council member Tyler Olson in August said he did not believe Cargill met the legal definition of an essential service, but added, “Cargill needs a rail yard.” Council member Ashley Vanorny said that “when Cargill inevitably reconsiders the Stewart Road location, they can count on my full support.”

Wednesday, council member Scott Overland, who did not support the August request, said he won’t firmly decide until the matter comes to the council but is leaning toward supporting the Stewart Road plan.

“I am more favorable to the Stewart Road location,” Overland said. “The main reason is it is more out of the way than the old location at the entry to Prairie Park Fishery. “Cargill is a major employer in our city and must solve their rail car storage problem. With conditions such as extensive berming and other operational limits, I hope it is a location most citizens can live with should the council support the application.”

Council member Dale Todd has indicated he would support Cargill’s request, and Mayor Brad Hart sad he was prepared to vote in favor of Cargill in August.

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

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