CEDAR RAPIDS — Cargill is resurrecting a nearly 2-year-old effort to build a $6.5 million rail yard in a southeast Cedar Rapids neighborhood to support its wet corning milling plant, which likely will trigger another round of opposition from neighbors who do not want the industrial use so close to home.
Under pressure from those neighbors, the Cedar Rapids City Council on Aug. 27 unexpectedly rebuffed the agriprocessor’s request for an essential services designation so it could build the rail yard on private farm land off Otis Road SE, in the same blue-collar Rompot neighborhood.
Now Cargill is returning its attention to 28 acres of undeveloped city-owned land off Stewart Road SE near Prairie Park Fishery and trail system — which was pitched initially, but abandoned after neighborhood objections.
Company officials are gathering details for an application to the city, said Dan Pulis, Cargill facilities manager.
“At this point, the Stewart Road property, currently owned by the city, is the only viable property available,” Pulis said. “We will engage with neighbors on the non-engineered design aspects of the rail yard at this proposed location before we present our proposal to the City Planning Commission.”
Pulis did not have a timeline for how quickly a new application would be submitted. Pulis said he anticipates seeking a rezoning for the site, which had a city parks department posting as a “wildlife refuge” a recently as last year. When Cargill first proposed acquiring the Stewart Road site, it offered $83,220 for the land. Cargill had been awarded rights to acquire the site through a disposition process, which the city still considers valid, said Jennifer Pratt, city development director.
The case for rezoning would need City Planning Commission review and recommendation first, and then a public hearing before the City Council and three public votes for approval.
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Traditionally, if enough nearby property owners protest a rezoning, it can force a three-quarters supermajority vote — requiring support from seven of the nine-member City Council — rather than a simple majority vote for approval.
During the council meeting last month, state Sen. Rob Hogg, a Democrat and 20-year resident of a home about a block and half away from the Stewart Road site, made what proved to be the winning case for neighbors that doomed the essential services request.
He contended Cargill did not qualify as an essential service by the city’s own definition, which several council members noted as a concern in rebuffing the request.
City lawyers offered a legal opinion supporting the use of the designation to allow a new rail yard, but the city has refused to publicly release the opinion, citing attorney-client privilege.
Hogg said zoning is a property right residents use to forecast how the space around them would be used in deciding where to live and invest their money.
If the city is determined to approve a rail yard in the Rompot neighborhood, city leaders — not the residents — have an obligation to figure out how to make the neighborhood better than before, he said.
“No. 1, it still is an industrial intrusion into our green belt and into a neighborhood comprised of residential and agriculture properties, so that is not good,” Hogg said in an interview. “I think we need everyone in the city to engage in the process to figure out how we can make it something that is not detrimental to one of our long-standing neighborhoods — Rompot — and not detrimental to our green belt.”
He said Cargill needs to evaluate how much of a footprint it truly needs and how close to the existing rail yard it can build to minimize intrusion. Neighbors need to figure out what their priorities are, he said.
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As to how neighbors could be made better off while still taking a “rail yard for the team,” Hogg pointed to better flood protection, a housing improvement program like in other parts of the city, directing financial incentives at residents and connecting a trail system to downtown.
Even in opposing granting the designation last month, multiple council members indicated a willingness to support a future request, agreeing that Cargill needs a rail yard and is a critical industry and a community partner.
“It is unfortunate a few people strayed away from the original location that the same citizens are asking for now ... ” council member Ashley Vanorny said. “When Cargill inevitably reconsiders the Stewart Road location, they can count on my vote.”
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