CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids City Council members are largely staying silent as a controversial vote looms on allowing one of the city’s biggest industries — Cargill — to install a $6.5 million rail yard in the southeast quadrant’s Rompot neighborhood, where residents are vocally opposed.
After months of debate, the council will be asked Tuesday to support an essential services designation, which would allow Cargill to build an 18-track storage yard for up to 200 freight cars near its corn milling plant. It’s needed to remain competitive, according to Cargill.
“I’m confident we will take all the available data and info, including what we hear on Tuesday, into consideration and make the best decision for Cedar Rapids,” Mayor Brad Hart said by email Friday.
On Tuesday, residents can speak during a public hearing at the City Council meeting at 4 p.m. at City Hall, 101 First St. SE. Immediately afterward, the council is expected to vote.
Cargill has a purchase agreement for two privately owned parcels of farmland south of Otis Road SE and west of Blakely Boulevard SE near the Prairie Park Fishery. The rail yard would operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to a Cargill FAQ.
Cargill has supplied the city with reports on lighting, sound, air quality, property value impacts and more, largely rebutting concerns. City staff have recommended approval with conditions, including installing a berm to buffer sound, light and visual impacts, restricting light and sounds, and forbidding storage of hazardous materials.
An earlier version last year proposed the rail yard on city-owned land nearby on Stewart Road, but city officials and Cargill pumped the brakes as pressure from resistant neighbors mounted.
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Neighbors resisted a rail yard so close to their homes with fears of noise, traffic, fumes and decreased property values, plus detracting from the adjacent Prairie Park natural area. They urged Cargill to find a new site.
Cargill found a new site, but neighbors remain opposed on many of the same grounds. They have staged public meetings to make their case. Cargill also has held meetings to lay out its plans, take feedback and answer questions.
Heading into the vote, none of the council members have publicly staked out a position, although the council unanimously voted in favor of the Cargill project as the process was moving forward last year.
Ashley Vanorny said she is “reviewing all constituent outreach and options available for an optimal resolution.”
Scott Olson noted he had not attended the Cargill or neighborhood meetings so he could get a clear view of the presentation Tuesday. He has taken a tour of the property with city staff. Scott Overland said he too was coming to the Tuesday meeting with an open mind, adding he still had meetings planned with some neighbors. Dale Todd said he would wait for Tuesday to weigh in.
He previously said the project would help draw train cars out of downtown and it was important to support local industry, while adding neighbors should press for accommodations.
Susie Weinacht said she had plans to speak with Cargill to learn more of its rationale as well as plans to minimize impacts.
“I want to know is this the site they feel confident in,” Weinacht said. “I am still gathering information.”
Marty Hoeger, Ann Poe and Tyler Olson did not return messages.
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The essential services designation has a shorter bar to overcome than the previous process, which would have required a rezoning.
The essential services designation requires a single vote, unlike a land rezoning, which requires three votes over multiple weeks. If neighboring residents oppose, they can force a supermajority vote for a rezoning, while a simple majority is needed for an essential services designation.
The City Planning Commission voted 6-1 in favor of Cargill’s plans last month.
Cargill has considered but ruled out several other sites, which company officials say are not feasible.
Some residents have urged Cargill and the city to reconsider the first option off Stewart Road.
“The Stewart street I believe would be safer because it is located at the end of the land area and is not close to the actual homes,” Pat Shannon said during a council meeting earlier this month. “It’s not right next to the Prairie Park Fishery, which has been an outstanding improvement to the area.
The proposal now is a block from the city park, and it is quite heavily traveled.”
He also pointed out active tracks already exist in the area with railcars at times bearing the warning of dangerous chemicals.
City officials said Cargill would need to submit a new application if it wished to pursue the first site again.
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