CR pumps brakes on Cargill development

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA - Yesterday the Cedar Rapids city council faced what Mayor Brad Hart called “probably the most controversial decision that this council has faced in the last about 19 months now.”

More than 20 people spoke during a public hearing about a proposed Cargill rail yard at the Cedar Rapids city council meeting on August 27, 2019. (Mary Green/KCRG)

The decision was over whether or not to allow plans to move forward on a rail yard in a Cedar Rapids neighborhood.

The Cargill rail yard has been a contentious proposal for more than a year. Before the city council met to vote on the project, the city received more than 60 letters objecting to it. At Tuesday’s meeting, council members listened to more than two hours of public comment, most of which were against the plan.

The rail yard would sit along Otis Road, near Blakely Boulevard Southeast and the Prairie Park Fishery. It would store up to 200 freight cars and move them between its corn milling plant about a mile away. Cargill also promised neighbors it would take measures to reduce noise, light and other disturbances.

While those concerns were repeatedly brought up during the public hearing, the bigger and more pertinent question was if the rail yard served an “essential service," as the City of Cedar Rapids was seeking to give it an essential services designation, instead of rezoning the land.

City Development Director Jennifer Pratt and Assistant Development Services Manager Sandy Pumphrey said that designation allowed the city to attach a list of nine conditions to the project, intended to appease the concerns of people who live nearby, which were recommended by the city planning commission in July.

Pratt and Pumphrey said if those conditions were not followed, the city would be allowed to revoke the essential services designation, whereas a rezoning would last in perpetuity and would remain in place if the land’s ownership changed.

But some of the people who addressed the council Tuesday said the rail yard and Cargill are not essential services.

“In this case, Cargill not a public or private utility," Robb Hogg, Iowa state senator and a resident in the area of the proposed rail yard, said. "In this case, Cargill is not a railroad, and as far as I know, Cargill is not the city. Those are the only three entities that are allowed to do essential services under the zoning code."

When public comment wrapped up, council members each gave their thoughts on what they had heard, with the exception of Ann Poe, who was absent from the meeting. It became clear the council was split, with some members saying they would vote in favor of the approval, others saying they would vote against it, and the rest saying they had not yet decided.

But no one motioned to approve or second the resolution, which means the resolution failed, pumping the brakes on the rail yard project for now.

Cargill said it believes the rail yard will happen one way or another.