The Cedar Rapids City Council voted for a final time in support of rezoning land next to the Rompot neighborhood and Prairie Park Fishery, giving Cargill the necessary approval to build their 12-track, 200-car rail yard.
Cargill has been trying to get a rail yard for almost two years, with plans shifting back and forth between the city-owned property south of Stewart Road and the “farm property” on Otis Road.
The company faced a roadblock earlier this year when the city council didn’t call a vote during the Aug. 27 meeting that would have designated the rail yard as an essential service at the farm property.
Cargill then switched back to the site they originally wanted — the Stewart Road location, the same site that was approved at Tuesday’s meeting. Cargill abandoned its original plan for a Stewart Road rail yard due to local opposition.
Throughout the nearly two-year process, residents living in or near the Rompot neighborhood have been vocal about their opposition to the plan. Cargill employees and a handful of residents, at times, have expressed their support for the proposal because of the jobs Cargill brings to the community and the need for a rail yard to keep Cedar Rapids-based operations cost effective.
The third rezoning vote saw more of the same.
Out of the 30 people who signed up to speak, 18 people spoke in opposition. Residents brought up similar concerns they’d shared with the city council at previous meetings: the impact on Prairie Park Fishery, concerns about flooding and lack of communication from Cargill.
Cedar Rapids residents, including Tonya Sotelo, also expressed feeling like the city council was not representing its constituents.
“You’re voted into this position to be our voice, however, I’ve heard the council choose the path [of] industrial growth over people’s lives,” Sotelo said.
State Sen. Rob Hogg, who lives on Otis Road, voiced concern that most of the future rail yard site is in the 200-year floodplain.
“Please don’t underestimate the flood risk that this project would be creating,” Hogg said.
Hogg’s daughter Dorothy added, “I am here because I, too, know that we are in a climate crisis and that means this development will flood again and again.”
Twelve people, mostly Cargill employees, spoke in favor of the rezoning.
Dan Pulis, manager of the Cedar Rapids corn milling facility, and Cargill employee Larry Atkins both brought up the 2015 closure of Cargill’s Memphis, Tennessee plant.
“Not having our own rail yard will hurt our business,” Pulis said. “Cedar Rapids must have a rail yard. Cedar Rapids must be able to operate efficiently and cost effectively, something that Memphis was not able to do.”
A September 2014 press release issued by Cargill cited “underutilization of the Memphis plant and its location away from the corn belt” as reasons for closing.
Cargill hasn’t provided the city with an estimate of when it claims the Cedar Rapids operations would no longer be economically viable, if it was not able to build its own 200-car rail yard.
Mayor Brad Hart, who called the rail yard the “most controversial decision” the city council has faced in the last year and a half during the council’s Aug. 27 meeting, was the only one to speak before the Dec. 17 vote.
“I believe we can help protect important jobs in our community with a project that will coexist with the neighbors and the fishery,” Hart said.
The city council voted 8-1 in favor of approving the rezoning for a final time and approving the execution of the development agreement. Councilmember Susie Weinacht voted against both the rezoning and the development agreement. Weinacht was also the sole vote in opposition during the second rezoning vote. She was not present for the first vote at the Nov. 19 council meeting.
Construction of the rail yard is expected to begin in the spring of next year and be completed at the end of 2020, if there are no setbacks.
But despite city council approval, residents opposed to the rail yard are not giving up.
In a written statement following the meeting, Prairie Park Community spokesperson Kerry Sanders said, “This community cannot make Cargill and the city do the right thing, but we can hold them accountable for their deliberate and premeditated failures to protect our city’s residents from predictable and lasting harm.”
On Monday, Hogg and his wife Kate filed a petition in Linn County District Court, challenging the city council’s decision on Nov. 19 to approve amending the future land use map.
Hogg told Little Village in November that it’s not uncommon for land use decisions to go to district court. He mentioned how he’s handled similar cases as an attorney and knows “how difficult it is.”
The petition asks the court to suspend development of the property, or further approval of development, until the legal challenge is resolved, and for the court to overturn the council’s decision.
“When we bought [our home in the Rompot neighborhood], which is where we thought we would live the rest of our lives, I never thought that a large industrial rail yard would get dumped in my neighborhood, and I’d have to be thinking about these things,” Hogg said in November.