CEDAR RAPIDS — Cargill’s plan to build an 18-track, 200 freight car rail yard in the Rompot-Cedar Valley neighborhood just south of downtown gained a key procedural approval Thursday despite vehement opposition during a meeting lasting more than three hours.
The Cedar Rapids City Planning Commission, which provides advice to the City Council, voted 5-1 to support Cargill’s request for an essential services designation for its $6.5 million rail yard. The recommendation came after nearly 30 people weighed in, most of them against it.
“We are excited we can move forward,” said Dan Pulis, the Cargill facility manager. “This is essential for us to have a new rail yard, but we know we have more work to do.”
Cargill is proposing the rail yard on 24 acres of farm land near Blakely Boulevard and Otis Road SE between the neighborhood on one side and Prairie Park Fishery on the other.
Cargill, which has 481 full-time employees in Cedar Rapids, says the rail yard is needed to manage its costs and protect its work force.
This is the second stab it has taken at building a new rail yard. Cargill and city leaders pumped the brakes last fall on a city-owned site not far from the farmland after neighbors rallied against it. Both sites are in proximity to the Cargill corn milling plant.
Two commission members were not present for the vote and one member abstained due to a conflict. Member Karl Cassell cast the lone dissenting vote.
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“I am really concerned about ramrodding this down this neighborhood’s throat,” Cassell said, noting he was concerned about environmental and neighborhood impacts. “Their livelihood is at stake. Their neighborhood is at stake. … If this is approved by the council, there is no going back.”
Commission member Linda Langston expressed reservation but ultimately voted to recommend it proceed, though she urged additional conditions.
“For all the good work Cargill will put forth, and I am certain they will, this is a dramatic change for that neighborhood,” Langston said. “Realistically, there are certain neighborhoods I can almost guarantee you this would never happen in, if someone wanted to drop a rail yard in because it met certain physical requirements. I think we have to be honest about that.”
One after one, speakers weighed in on the proposed rail yard. About 22, primarily neighbors of the site, spoke against; six spoke in favor. Supporters were the company’s employees and contractors, business leaders and a union representative.
At points, neighbors broke into tears testifying about their “little slice of heaven” and the lack of notification they’d received about Cargill’s plans, despite assurances of transparency and communication from city and Cargill leaders, and several meetings to which many neighbors said they were never invited.
Some waved signs declaring “Build Trails, Not Rails” — a nod to the nearby Prairie Park Fishery and trail system adjacent the proposed rail yard.
“Anyone saying there is minimal impact on real estate from the rail yard is not being honest,” said Mary McGrath, 69, who lives near the site. “If this rail yard goes in, it is going to destroy lives; it is going to destroy wealth. … So I am asking you to protect us from this atrocity.”
She and others said the plans are being rushed through and urged more time to study the issues and consider other sites.
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“You guys keep saying ‘minimal impact’,” said Dustin Carson, 39. “What is minimal impact? They are putting in a rail yard ... There are many issues they haven’t even thought of and I think it is being crammed down our throat and we just have to take it.”
Kerry Sanders, a spokesperson for the opposition, said he was disappointed by the vote. He said Cargill is not providing a use that protects the safety of the community and the company doesn’t meet the definition of an essential service. While rail companies can meet the standard, a rail yard does not, and Cargill is not a rail company, he said.
“We will continue to talk, but this give Cargill more ammunition to act with immunity in our neighborhood,” he said.
The City Council tentatively is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote Aug. 27 on the designation.
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