CEDAR RAPIDS — Agricultural giant Cargill is proposing a new site on private land to build a rail yard for its corn-milling operation, but neighbors continue to raise concerns about noise, property values and other issues in their quiet residential nook just south of downtown.
Having moved away from a previous plan to use nearby city land for the rail yard, the food processing company said a new site would be on about 24.24 acres of farmland with the Rompot-Cedar Valley neighborhood on one side and Prairie Park Fishery on the other.
The site, along the east side of the Cedar River, would hold about 18 storage tracks, 200 freight cars and one primary engine, and would see four to six trips daily between the rail yard and plant, according to Cargill.
“The future viability of Cargill functions here depends on rail,” said Dan Pulis, facility manager. “Rail is central to what we do here. We have some trucks, but the majority is rail.”
Cargill now uses a Union Pacific yard north of First Avenue E, but its storage capacity is being reduced, Pulis said. Other efficiencies and savings also are realized by a location closer to the corn milling plant at 1710 16th St. SE, he said.
The City Planning Commission is scheduled to consider an “essential services designation” for the site and take public comment at 3 p.m. Thursday at City Council Chambers in City Hall, 101 First St. SE.
The commission can provide an advisory recommendation to the City Council, which tentatively is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the designation Aug. 27.
Neighbors are making their opposition known.
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“Would any of you want to look out your window every day or always have to keep an eye on your kids in their own backyard and make sure they are safe? Because that thing in a residential neighborhood has danger written all over it,” Corey Gatewood, who has lived on Blakely Boulevard SE for 35 years, wrote to the city July 10. “All this is going do is make a company richer and lower all of our property values as well as making it very difficult to ever sell my property if I ever chose to do so.”
Cargill held an open house Monday afternoon to present the new plan.
City staff had backed plans for a rail yard on city-owned land posted as a wildlife refuge in late 2018, and Cargill appeared primed to move forward. But city leaders and Cargill pumped the brakes as neighborhood opposition mounted, vowing more time for community input.
Cargill now has a purchase agreement with landowners Gregory L. Baird and the James M. and Mary O’Connor Trust for land near Blakely Boulevard and Otis Road SE. The budget is similar to the $6.3 million identified for the earlier plan.
If the process plays out smoothly. Cargill tentatively could begin the six or seven month build this fall, Pulis said.
Several other sites were considered, including land owned by Cargill and the city immediately adjacent to the plant, but were not feasible for a variety of reasons including insufficient space, topographical layout and entrance and safety issues.
City officials are recommending approval with some conditions:
• Operations limited to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, with up to 10 exceptions per year for unforeseen circumstances.
• Noise can’t exceed levels outlined in a noise report and train horns would be prohibited within the rail yard, except in emergencies.
• Hazardous materials cannot be stored in railcars on site at any time, although small quantities of ancillary chemicals may be present for minor maintenance.
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• A wall and a berm must be installed before operations begin. Cargill is planning a 15-foot-tall berm with noise barrier walls and a groves of trees to “help reduce noise in a visually aesthetic manner.”
• After-hours lighting will be limited to on-site security for the office.
The essential-services designation no longer exists in city code, but did at the time of the original application. The designation is “significantly more restrictive” than rezoning in part because it allows the city to set conditions, according to city documents.
The designation is used for public and private utilities, railroads and the city to operate and maintain essential services “that are necessary to protect the public safety and welfare.” The code requires compatibility of the project with the area be considered.
City staff sought several studies, including on property value impacts, noise, lighting and environmental effects of a rail yard at the site, and officials said they were satisfied with the findings submitted in June.
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