CEDAR RAPIDS — After nearly two years of stops and starts, Cargill finally appears to have a lock on constructing a rail yard in a defiant southeast Cedar Rapids neighborhood.
The Cedar Rapids City Council reversed course Tuesday night after previously rebuffing over the summer a bid for the rail yard at another nearby location in the Rompot neighborhood. This time at another site in Rompot, council members favored two key measures related to changing the land use designation to allow industrial uses.
“Although our future land use maps and zoning ordinances are intended to help guide future development, they were never intended to be a promise,” Mayor Brad Hart said. “And they were never intended as a promise that they would never change and they would remain the same forever.”
Hart noted 18 changes to the future land use map and 187 rezonings in the past seven years.
The nine-member council unanimously — with member Susie Weinacht absent — approved a resolution changing the future land use map allowing heavier use on the land — 28 acres of city-owned land south of Stewart Road SE — and to rezone 16.7 acres of the property from suburban residential to industrial.
The land-use change resolution required one vote, while rezoning is an ordinance change requiring three votes to pass. The subsequent two votes likely will be Dec. 3 and Dec. 17.
Cargill is proposing a $6.5 million, 12-track, 200-car rail storage and switching yard that would operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to better position the company and its employees with an increasingly expensive and unreliable rail car supply.
Among concessions, Cargill would put the land not used for a rail yard into a conservation easement restricting its future use, replacing a lost pollinator zone and restricting any different industrial use.
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The council heard nearly four hours of testimony mostly from opponents — although some supporters spoke — pleading with the city not to allow a rail yard near their homes, citing concerns about safety, environmental impacts, noise, pollution and loss of property value in the blue-collar neighborhood in a nature corridor.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Democratic state Sen. Rob Hogg, who lives nearby. “Pave over paradise and put in a parking lot for rail cars.”
Hogg said neighbors could consider legal options, but noted legal fees could be a barrier in a community with modest incomes. He said he was considering representing himself in requesting a judicial review of the land use decision.
The testimony turned contentious at points, with some neighbors accusing council members of being “gutless” and “disgusting” and accusing Cargill of lying.
Council members largely were understanding of the comments from angry neighbors grappling with the future of their home life.
“The council doesn’t want to see anything negative happen to Prairie Park Fishery, the neighborhood, or the nature corridor,” council member Dale Todd said. “I understand your disappointment. In this case I’m doing what is in the best interest of the most people. I know that is not enjoyable to those on the short end of that stick.”
Cargill had been working on a rail yard proposal for nearly two years, facing vocal neighborhood opposition and City Council uncertainty. The agribusiness hit pause last winter to re-evaluate and offer an alternative.
But the council rebuffed that alternative — a request in August to build nearby on farmland, with several council members questioning the legality of the city’s recommended approach to allow the rail yard by considering Cargill an essential service.
Cargill then came back to the Stewart Road site, which it had proposed initially.
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“We’ve dedicated so much time and effort into how to build this in a way that would have the least impact,” said Dan Pulis, Cargill facility manager for the corn milling plant at 1710 16th St SE, which the rail yard would support. “I think council recognizes we’ve done everything we could do to address concerns. This is a little bit of validation for us.”
If the project gets the additional approvals and continues to move forward, Pulis said he anticipates construction activity on the site in the spring and a rail yard active before weather turns to winter in late 2020.
Council members said they felt they had to do something and Cargill had done everything asked of it. Cargill is a major employer and core industry that supports numerous jobs and other contractors in the area.
“What we heard was please slow down and let us work through this process,” said Marty Hoeger, who opposed the plans in August for the other site. “I think what we see today is a much better project than what we saw two years ago … If Cargill could have located next to their plant, they would. I think they came up with every option possible.”
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