By Cindy Hadish
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Mayor Brad Hart wished everyone “happy holidays” at the end of a 3-hour City Council meeting.
Hart might have an easier time achieving that than the residents of the Rompot/Prairie Park Fishery neighborhood, where the council had just approved rezoning to allow ag giant Cargill to build a 200-car, 12-track industrial railyard.
He and council members Dale Todd, Ashley Vanourny, Scott Olson, Tyler Olson, Ann Poe, Marty Hoeger and Scott Overland all voted in favor of rezoning the 28-acre floodplain site, currently designated as a Prairie Pollinator zone, from suburban residential large lot to general industrial.
The council also approved a development agreement with Cargill for the city-owned land, south of Otis Avenue, west of Cole Street SE. Susie Weinacht, who is leaving the City Council, was the only member to vote no on both measures.
Hart said the council had looked at studies on air quality, noise, light and other factors — all provided by Cargill — in explaining their vote.
He promised to protect the fishery and to “work hard to minimize the impacts on those who live nearby.”
More than 100 people attended the Dec. 17 council meeting, with some spilling into the hallway, and 30 people spoke, including 10 Cargill employees. Most of the other speakers were residents who asked the council members to reconsider their votes. This was the final of three readings.
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The first reading on the rezoning, as well as a land use map amendment that was unanimously approved, was Nov. 19. The second reading was earlier this month.
Residents have pleaded their case at all of the meetings, with some nearly in tears, and dozens of letters have been written to city leaders, citing the large-scale changes that will be brought to the quiet neighborhood once the railyard is built and allowed to operate 12 hours every day, 365 days per year.
Even as the city tries to clean up the Cedar Lake area in northeast Cedar Rapids, located next to an established railyard, the new railyard will be built alongside the popular Prairie Park Fishery — used by thousands of anglers, runners, walkers, cyclists and bird watchers — and Sac & Fox Trail.
Angela Gillis, whose home sits on a bluff overlooking the planned site of the railyard, suggested council members who are proud of their vote put their names on a plaque at the fishery, for making the view of the railyard possible.
Gillis also raised concerns over Cargill getting to meet one-on-one with city staff for more than a year to accomplish their goal.
“We didn’t have that opportunity,” she said.
Dan Pulis, Cargill’s Cedar Rapids corn milling plant manager, cited the 280 jobs at Cargill in asking the council to support the railyard.
“When our business hurts, all of us hurts,” he said. “Cedar Rapids must have a railyard.”
Pulis has said the railyard would take seven to nine months to construct, with some environmental and engineering plans still needing to be finalized.
“We set out from the beginning of this project to do the right thing: create a better future for Cedar Rapids,” he said.
Kerry Sanders, a spokesman for the neighborhood, said Cargill refused to meet with any neighbors opposed to the project to discuss better options.
Sanders said in the beginning, he opposed the project based on its merits.
“I am now more opposed to it because of who Cargill is,” he said, citing millions of dollars the privately owned multinational company has paid in environmental fines, as well as their track record in South America and elsewhere, where Cargill is accused of child labor law violations, among other infractions.
Kelly Franks, who lives across the street from the site, said she and her husband bought their home on Helen Court SE because of the views of nature.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, I guarantee you wouldn’t be voting for this,” she said, noting that none of the council members live in the area.
Dorothy Hogg, whose home is a quarter-mile from the site, asked if the City Council was elected to represent its citizens or a corporation.
Hogg cited irreversible damage to the nature corridor once the railyard is allowed.
“You are making a statement and setting a precedent,” she said.
Her parents, Kate Hogg and state Sen. Rob Hogg, who also spoke at the meeting, filed a petition for writ of certiorari Dec. 16 in Linn County District Court.
The petition, which names the Cedar Rapids City Council as defendants, asks that the court stay any further approval or development of the property until final resolution of the petition and that the court set aside the council’s approval of the future land use map amendment.
Rob Hogg cited the city’s agreement to sell the property in the 200-year floodplain among the reasons the council should change its vote.
“That should be the end of this rezoning,” he said.
After the meeting, Sanders, who lives in the neighborhood and serves as spokesman, said the neighbors were not giving up.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Nothing ended today. This is the beginning.”
Learn more: City leaders hear message on value of nature