Cedar Rapids City Council backs Cargill’s plans for a rail yard in Rompot neighborhood, despite opposition from residents

Cargill rail car on railroad siding in Cedar Rapids, Aug. 29, 2019.– Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously approved amending the city’s future land use map and rezoning the land near the Rompot neighborhood and Prairie Park Fishery, bringing Cargill one step closer to realizing its plan to build a 200-car railyard.

Emotions ran high during the Tuesday night city council meeting, which included approximately three hours of public comment. Unsurprisingly, most speakers opposed the plan. Even before the meeting, the council had received 37 objections to Cargill’s railyard.

The conflict between Cargill and Rompot residents has been going on for nearly two years, as the plans have shifted back and forth between the city-owned Stewart Road property and “the farm property” on Otis Road. Both sites border the Rompot neighborhood.

Cargill’s farm property plan was withdrawn in August after the city council declined to vote on the City Planning Commission’s recommendation that the rail yard be declared an “essential service.” The declaration would have allowed Cargill to bypass the normal rezoning process.

Cargill then switched back to the site they originally wanted — the Stewart Road location, the same site under consideration at Tuesday’s meeting. Cargill had abandoned its original plan for a Stewart Road rail yard due to local opposition.

This time around, the Stewart Road plan did receive some support. A handful of residents spoke in favor of the plan and a number of Cargill employees were present to discuss the need for a rail yard and praise the work the corporation has done.

Cargill came back with a proposal for a rail yard on the Stewart Road site after its Otis Road/farm property proposal was killed by the city council in August. — Map courtesy of the city of Cedar Rapids

Cargill has emphasized throughout the process that having its own rail yard is necessary for its Cedar Rapids operations to be cost-effective in the future, a point Dan Pulis brought up during the city council meeting. Pulis is the manager of Cargill’s corn milling facility in Cedar Rapids.

Pulis also discussed the parts of the Cargill’s proposal designed to minimize the impact of operating a 200-car railyard would have on the neighborhood, including limiting hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., limiting noise levels and not storing hazardous materials on the site’s railcars.

In an update sent out by the city on Nov. 15, it was noted that Cargill has agreed the area being rezoned for the rail yard will remain a rail yard, meaning any changes in the industrial use of the property would have to be approved by the city council.

Cargill has also agreed to “plant the equivalent area of pollinator nearby, to compensate for what is lost at the Stewart Road property,” according to the city update. Cedar Rapids received a state grant in 2016 to establish a habitat for Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

But people living in and near the Rompot neighborhood have voiced their concerns throughout the various stages of the plan, and the city council meeting was no exception. Residents brought up the lack of communication from Cargill, how the rail yard would radically alter the character of the neighborhood and the environmental impacts on Prairie Park Fishery.

Jeff Franks bought his home on Helen Court in February. Speaking to the council, he recounted how, before buying his home, he noticed the empty lot but was reassured it had been vacant for years.

“I would have never have bought that [house] had I known that rail yard was going to be there,” Franks said.

State Sen. Rob Hogg, who lives on Otis Road, and his daughter Dorothy were among the speakers who brought up the environmental impact of Cargill’s plan. Hogg’s wife Kate also spoke in opposition.

“It does not make sense to change the zoning or the land use map to build a new industrial rail yard in the floodplain that is not flood protected,” Rob Hogg said.

“Do not make a decision as if the flood of 2008 will never happen again.”

Dorothy Hogg brought up how the Rompot neighborhood still hasn’t recovered from the 2008 flood, and how the conditions intended to mitigate the impact on residents are not enough.

“Our well-being is not up for an economic transaction,” she said. “If you allow this development, you are knowingly placing an environmental injustice on a community that has already faced more harm to its environment, infrastructure and well-being than any community deserves.”

But unlike the Cedar Rapids City Planning Commission, which narrowly recommended amending the future land use map and rezoning, the city council was unanimous in backing Cargill. (At-large member Susie Weinacht was not present at the meeting.)

“I understand the hurt and the disappointment, and you can certainly vote me out if you want to, but I want you to know I think in this case I’m doing what I think is in the best interest for the most people. That’s not enjoyable for those that are on the short end of that stick,” Councilmember Dale Todd said, explaining his vote.

“This is obviously an important issue for everyone here,” Mayor Brad Hart said. “It’s obviously an important issue for Cargill and its employees and for our community. Nobody likes a change, especially in their neighborhood.”

“Although our future land use maps and zoning ordinances are intended to help guide future development, they were never intended to be a promise and they were never intended as a promise that they would never change [and] they would remain the same forever.”

Councilmember Ashley Vanorny said Cargill has “exceeded expectations” regarding concerns about the environment. Vanorny also accused Hogg of “grandstanding,” saying when the Democratic senator expressed concerns to her it was more about property values than the environment. Vanorny later apologized for her comments and said her “frustrations clearly got the better of me.”

After the meeting, Hogg said Rompot residents could take the city to court, but conceded that option might be too expensive for them to pursue.

The city council must vote on the rezoning proposal two more time before it is officially approved. These votes are scheduled for the Dec. 3 and Dec. 17 city council meetings, however, it’s possible the votes will be combined and occur at the Dec. 3 meeting.

If everything continues moving forward, Pulis said construction on the site could begin in spring and be completed in late 2020.

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