Government

Cedar Rapids council stops Cargill rail yard in its tracks for now

Another proposal to build facility near Rompot neighborhood is likely

Cargill has a purchase agreement for two privately owned parcels of farmland south of Otis Road SE and parallel to the Prairie Park Fishery drive, and is seeking to build a rail yard on the land. Photographed in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cargill has a purchase agreement for two privately owned parcels of farmland south of Otis Road SE and parallel to the Prairie Park Fishery drive, and is seeking to build a rail yard on the land. Photographed in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A hotly contested plan for building a Cargill rail yard near a blue-collar neighborhood failed Tuesday evening in a rare split between the City Council and city staff.

The council didn’t formally reject Cargill’s request for an essential services designation. That’s the mechanism city staff had recommended for the agricultural giant to build an 18-track, 200 railcar storage yard between the Rompot neighborhood and the Prairie Park Fishery on 24 acres of privately owned farmland south of Otis Road SE and west of Blakely Boulevard SE, south of downtown Cedar Rapids.

However, after more than two hours of public testimony mostly in opposition and deliberation by the council, it was clear the measure lacked the votes to pass.

Previous Coverage

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.

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It failed for a procedural reason — no one made a motion to vote on the essential services designation.

“Sometimes it feels like the city is this big process you can’t stop and you can’t do anything about,” Rick Stanek, whose property abuts the Otis Road site, said after the meeting. “I like to think what I said was considered.”

His wife, Diane, who delivered tearful testimony during the hearing, added, “I think they listened.” They both had assumed the measure would pass.

Most council members acknowledged Cargill needs a rail yard to remain competitive. While they had qualms with details of the proposal, several indicated they could support a future application. So this likely isn’t the last word on a Cargill rail yard in the Rompot neighborhood.

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Cargill had designed a $6.5 million yard that would operate between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Under conditions stipulated as part of an essential services designation, Cargill faced limits on noise and lighting, and bans on storing hazardous materials, and would have to build a berm to buffer the yard from neighbors.

“I know a motion not to vote is not the same as a no vote,” said Dan Pulis, facility manager for the corn milling plant at 1710 16th St. SE, which the rail yard would support. “We need to go back and figure out what it all means and figure out what is our path.”

Pulis said that while the events Tuesday did not set the company back to square one — it has completed numerous studies that still could apply — it now has more work to do. He didn’t immediately know a timeline for a reapplication.

Deputy City Manager Sandi Fowler noted that in reapplying, Cargill would need to submit a new application, appear before the City Planning Commission and come back before the City Council for another public hearing and vote.

Of council members who made their intentions known of how they would vote, Ashley Vanorny, Marty Hoeger, Tyler Olson and Scott Overland indicated they would not support the measure.

Some questioned whether Cargill qualified as an essential service based on the city’s definition. Others preferred an original proposal for building the yard on city land a few hundred feet away on Stewart Road.

“I am not comfortable with the essential service designation, and I am not comfortable with the Otis Road location,” Hoeger said.

Hoeger noted he would support the original proposal from 2018, in which Cargill had sought to purchase 28 acres of city land and rezone it. City staff would not specifically address the decision to use the essential services designation to clear they way for the yard — considering it a legal matter protected by attorney-client privilege. But staff pointed to the flexibility an essential service designation gave for allowing the city to require conditions of Cargill for the land, and also pointed to Cargill’s importance as a large employer in the area.

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Vanorny did not voice concern for the use of the essential services designation but rather the site.

“When Cargill inevitably reconsiders the Stewart Road location, they can count on my full support,” she said.

A number of residents and council members indicated they were surprised that the site where the rail yard would be built had changed with little notice. Several called on Cargill to step up its communications with neighbors.

Mayor Brad Hart and council member Dale Todd indicated they supported the plan, noting Cargill addressed many of the concerns residents had raised and completed numerous studies, and that Cargill is important to the community.

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

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