A closely divided Cedar Rapids City Planning Commission (CPC) voted on Thursday to recommend approval of Cargill’s plan to build a 200-car rail yard along Stewart Road next to the Rompot neighborhood and near Prairie Park Fishery. The vote came at the end of a nearly four-hour meeting, during which many Rompot residents spoke out against the plan.
The rail yard plan is now headed to the Cedar Rapids City Council for final approval. A previous Cargill plan was withdrawn in August after the city council declined to vote on the CPC recommendation that the rail yard be declared an “essential service.” The declaration would have allowed Cargill to bypass the normal rezoning process.
The plan considered in August would have put the rail yard on an Otis Road site known as “the farm property.” After it failed to get the essential service designation, Cargill abandoned the farm property plan to its first choice, the Stewart Road location — the same location that was the subject of the CPC vote on Thursday.
Cargill had given up on Stewart Road and turned to the farm property site because of local opposition to the plan.
In a September email to Little Village, Dan Pulis, manager of Cargill’s corn milling facility in Cedar Rapids, called the Stewart Road site the “only viable property available.”
Speaking at the CPC meeting on Thursday, Pulis said this time there are “at least some voices of support” from local residents and potential support from city councilmembers. City Councilmember Ashley Vanorny, who opposed constructing the rail yard at the Otis Road location, said in August, “When Cargill inevitably reconsiders the Stewart Road location, they can count on my full support.”
There were a few individuals who spoke in favor of building the rail yard on the Stewart Road site during the CPC meeting. Pat Shannon, who has lived in the Rompot neighborhood for 31 years, talked about how the site has been an area of drug activity, partying and dirt-bike riding.
“We welcome Cargill into our backyard,” he said. “The area will be taken care of.”
But the majority of people at the meeting spoke against the railyard, citing various concerns, including the lack of communication from Cargill, how the rail yard will ruin the neighborhood and the environmental impacts on Prairie Park Fishery.
Pulis had mentioned the informational meetings for residents Cargill scheduled, but residents who spoke on Thursday said they didn’t receive flyers from Cargill about the meetings until days after the meetings happened, and not all their questions were answered when they did attend meetings.
CPC members Kimberly King and Virginia Wilts both expressed concern regarding the poor communication.
“This lack of communication and the neighbors not feeling like they’re being cared for, I feel like this is a repeat from our last session,” King said. “I thought we addressed that last time. I’m not sure what progress we’ve made, and it’s frustrating for us, too.”
State Sen. Rob Hogg, who lives on Otis Road, was among those who spoke against the rail yard. Hogg brought up how he and his wife “carefully scrutinized” land use plans for the area prior to buying their home.
“I believe that putting an industrial intrusion into this neighborhood is a betrayal of the promise that you made to me, my wife and my family,” Hogg said. “I’m just saying that so you understand how important this is to us.”
Hogg made his opposition to the plan clear.
“I believe you should recommend to the city council ‘don’t do this,’” he said. “It’s not fair to the citizens, and you heard from others, who have invested and built their lives based on the zoning that this city has had for at least 20 years.”
In the end, the CPC voted 4-3 to amend the future land use map to allow the rail yard, with King, Wilts and Karl Cassell voting against it. The commission also voted 4-3 to recommend rezoning almost 17 acres of the 28-acre plot of city-owned land along Stewart Road from suburban residential to general industrial. King, Cassell and Linda Langston voted against the rezoning.
“You have a suburban large-lot home residential area, and we’re dropping in a rail yard, with good effort from Cargill,” 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. I really struggle with this because [the interests] are so very different.”
During the meeting, Cassell asked Pulis what Cargill’s “plan B” is if the plan doesn’t pass the city council.
“Cargill will have to go back and re-evaluate our business,” Pulis said. “As I talked about, 70 percent of all of our transportation goes out by rail. We’ll have to look at it. We have other businesses around the state, and if we’re not competitive, if we’re not adaptable, if we can’t change with the times and the conditions, our business will not be successful.”
The company currently uses a third party for the services the rail yard would provide. Cargill claims that having its own rail yard is necessary for its Cedar Rapids operations to be cost-effective in the future.
Cargill, a Minnesota-based multinational corporation focused on agricultural goods and services, is the largest privately owned American business in terms of revenue. Its Cedar Rapids operation employs approximately 200 people.
The city council will take up the rail yard at the Nov. 19 meeting, which is scheduled to include public hearings on amending the future land use map and rezoning.
The meeting will also have the first of three votes on whether to approve the rezoning. The other two votes will be at the Dec. 3 and Dec. 17 meetings. It is possible, however, that the final two votes will be combined at the Dec. 3 meeting.