Government

Cedar Rapids planning panel endorses Cargill rail yard

Next stop for neighbors opposed to project: City Council

City Planning Commission member Kim King, center, asks a question Thursday during a meeting at Cedar Rapids City Hall. The commission narrowly voted to endorse to the City Council a proposal from Cargill to build a $6.5 million, 12-track, 200-rail car yard in the southeast Rompot neighborhood. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
City Planning Commission member Kim King, center, asks a question Thursday during a meeting at Cedar Rapids City Hall. The commission narrowly voted to endorse to the City Council a proposal from Cargill to build a $6.5 million, 12-track, 200-rail car yard in the southeast Rompot neighborhood. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cargill passed the first test Thursday in its latest application to build a rail yard on vacant city-owned ground in the southeast neighborhood known as Rompot.

The City Planning Commission was called on to recommend whether the proposed $6.5 million, 12-track, 200-rail car storage yard on 16.7 acres of a 27.7 acre lot south of Stewart Road SE fits the city’s future plans for the area and if the industrial use adjacent a residential neighborhood and the Prairie Park Fishery works from a land-use perspective.

Seven of the commission’s nine members were present for the meeting, and narrowly favored the plan.

“Much of the growth that has occurred in the area, if you look historically, it happened where you had industry and residential that kind of coincided with one another,” said planning commission Chairman Jim Halverson.

Commissioners, who advise the City Council with non-binding recommendations, heard nearly three hours of testimony, mostly from resistant neighbors but from a handful of supporters as well.

The rail yard would support Cargill’s corn milling plant 1.75 miles away at 1710 16th St. SE.

A public hearing and a first vote on a rezoning the land from suburban residential to industrial — and a lone vote to increase the intensity allowed in the future land use map — are scheduled before the City Council at 4 p.m. Nov. 19 at City Hall, 101 First St. SE.

Subsequent rezoning votes are set for Dec. 3 and Dec. 17.

The remaining 11 acres of the lot not used for a rail yard would separate the neighborhood from the rail yard. It would include a berm to buffer sound and light and possibly include native plantings. An agreement between the city and Cargill includes a conservation easement so the land could not be developed in the future, and also restricts rail yard use to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily.

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The commission voted 4-3 in favor of the rezoning with members Linda Langston, Kim King and Karl Cassell opposed; and 4-3 in favor of the future land use map amendment with King, Cassell and Virginia Wilts opposed.

“You have a suburban large-lot home residential area and we’re dropping in a rail yard — with good effort from Cargill,” Commissioner Langston said. “I understand why they’re doing it. That’s what makes these decisions so very difficult because you have two very different interests at work here.”

Cassell noted industry and homes are segregated for a reason — a divide to prevent toxins from crossing into where people live. Officials have an opportunity to preemptively protect a neighborhood from regret years down the road, he said.

Several commission members — echoing testimony — criticized Cargill for its communications tactics with neighbors. Some complained that notices would arrive after meetings occurred, or a community open house was held but key Cargill officials didn’t attend.

Dan Pulis, the Cargill plant manager, noted the company had changed its communication strategy from holding large community meetings in which Cargill staff had been shouted down and cursed to smaller group meetings.

Some 70 percent of Cargill’s business is done by rail, he said, noting the importance of the rail yard to remain competitive and retain jobs.

Leading up to the council meeting, he planned to continue conversations with neighbors about design and use of the buffer area.

“We are committed to getting a rail yard that is environmentally friendly and totally fits in,” Pulis said.

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Neighbors described their neighborhood — sometimes called Rompot, Cedar Valley or Prairie Park — as modest and blue collar. They said they are facing a violation of promises made by the city through its comprehensive plan and zoning code. A rail yard in this area also conflicts with the city’s recreational and environmental goals, they said.

“We are only considering this because Cargill saw us as easy picking close to their location,” said Angela Gillis, who lives nearby.

A handful of people also spoke in favor.

Steve Nurre, a Cargill employee, refuted suggestions the company may pull out or otherwise reduce its presence here, noting an investment in the plant and flood protection as evidence of a long-term commitment.

A union steward spoke of the importance of the project to 200 jobs, and the creation of seven positions to support the rail yard. A farmer described Cargill as a great business partner and pointed to the rail yard as potential for business expansion.

Even a couple of neighbors stood up for the rail yard.

Pat Shannon, whose home backs up to the site, noted the property has long been a dumping ground for the public and city government, a place people go to party, a course for all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes and scene of drug activity.

“We welcome Cargill into our backyard,’’ Shannon said. “At least we know the area will be taken care of.”

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

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