Clark County Council at odds on railroad’s future


Clark County Council Chair Gary Medvigy firmly believes in the economic benefits of a heavy-industrial use for the county-owned Chelatchie-Prairie Railroad.

Some council members and local environmental advocacy groups, however, disagree with the county’s direction.

The county-owned Chelatchie-Prairie Railroad, which runs from Vancouver to Chelatchie, spans 33 miles and passes directly through Yacolt and Battle Ground. A “freight-rail dependent use” (FRDU) development proposed by the county would expand the railroad’s use to include industrial uses and allow the shipping of aggregate materials, including sand, rock and gravel.

The idea was first considered in 2018 but was bogged down by legal disagreements between the county and Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR), the operator since 2012. A new contract was signed in 2023, though PVJR operations have yet to begin. Medvigy stated that once the new Interstate 5 bridge is built, aggregate should be shipped southward for building materials.

Lands for jobs

The potential expansion of the railroad’s use will come with the potential for industrial or commercial job zones. Medvigy claims the FRDU will lead to more jobs in Clark County. The county currently estimates it needs to prepare for 90,000 additional jobs 20 years in the future. The current estimate is based on data used for growth planning under that state’s Growth Management Act. Additionally, Medvigy estimates that 70,000 people in Clark County commute to Oregon for work, based on previous studies.

“It’s not about the railroad. It’s about the businesses that we could attract, the industry that we could attract, the family-wage jobs that we could attract and place outside the [city] urban growth boundaries,” Medvigy said. “... [County residents] are paying income taxes to Oregon. They’re creating congestion. They’re wasting their time in a commute.”

Consulting work to develop regulations for such job sites was delayed last month, however.. During a June 23 meeting, Medvigy asked the council not to sign a contract with BERK Consulting INC, which would have examined a 400-acre site in Brush Prairie, west of state Route 503. The canceled $99,805 consulting contract included environmental implications, public feedback from locals and utility needs for a future industrial or commercial park zone at the proposed Brush Prairie overlay site. Last week, Medvigy explained that his reason for delaying the contract was to open a wider pool of consultants.

“The fundamental problem with the original solicitation is we literally only had two people apply … We just didn’t have enough responses to have a good selection of contractors,” Medvigy said.

Additionally, a “lands for jobs” study to consider the potential employment opportunities was added to the scope of work. Last month, Clark County Railroad Advisory Board Vice Chair John J. Shaffer said there may not be enough land within the 400-acre proposed overlay for an industrial or commercial job site. Medvigy suggests the new contract should include a study of all county lands, increasing the scope of work significantly. The council will decide the exact scope of work in its July meeting.

“The only change that you can count on right now that we voted on was to double check the math on the land … of which the FRDU is a good portion of it. Depending on how this pans out, we may have a lot more land available for industry,” Medvigy said.

However, future job prospects are not enough for Councilors Sue Marshall and Glen Yung, as both stated they want a full cost-benefit analysis for FRDU job sites. For his part, Medvigy said statewide studies on the benefits of FRDU overlays are sufficient and would save taxpayer money by avoiding a local economic analysis.

Yung said last week that he believed the original contract did not examine cost benefits of FRDU job sites enough.

“I’m all for making good investments in the community, but not without understanding the impacts and not understanding the economics of it … Throwing money is bad, you know?”

Environmental impacts and legal concerns

The previous and forthcoming consultant contract involves conducting an environmental impact study. Local environmental advocacy groups have raised concerns about the proposed job site in Brush Prairie, particularly its proximity to Glenwood Heights Primary and Laurin Middle schools, as well as to nearby residential homes. Both the Loo Wit Sierra Club and Friends of Clark County (FOCC) have opposed the site due to potential pollution and increased traffic associated with the proposed overlay and heavy rail use. Despite objections, Medvigy contends that the railroad could offer environmental benefits by reducing truck traffic on major roads used for aggregate shipping.

“The train is never going to go more than five or 10 miles an hour. This isn’t a high speed. We’re not going to see hazardous waste transported. All of these are false claims to scare the public,” Medvigy said.

Medvigy made a similar comment during a June 20 meeting, referring to concerns raised by environmental groups. FOCC President Ann Foster spoke against Medvigy’s comments in a July 3 open letter.

“The members of FOCC were collectively troubled by The Chair’s statements that gave the impression that members of the public have been spreading “propaganda” about the railroad operator…” Foster wrote. “We are not ‘fear mongers,’ but we are intelligent enough to draw specific conclusions from the specific facts on the ground. Those specific facts simply and correctly bear out what has been stated by the operator and agency employees on multiple occasions over the past year.”

Foster wrote in reference to PVJR, the operator under a county lease agreement, which is being investigated for potentially causing environmental damage. The Department of Ecology is investigating PVJR for obstructing water through tributaries to Chelatchie Creek and unauthorized discharges into adjacent wetlands. Additionally, PVJR is under investigation for trespassing and damaging county-owned property. This has worried both Foster and Yung.

“I just feel like, at this point in time, the operator does not appear to be a true community partner, and I would not want to open up more land at this point that he would be able to use the same way that he is currently shown that he will use it,” Yung said.

Yung and Foster also expressed concerns that PVJR may use eminent domain to take future properties for job sites. During a Wednesday, June 26 meeting, Clark County Railroad Advisory Board Chair Daniel Weaver said PVJR President Eric Temple has previously expressed interest in using eminent domain to obtain the proposed Brush Prairie overlay. Last month, the property owners told the advisory board they would not give up their property because they want to maintain their dairy farm.

“Eminent domain should be only exercised under extreme situations. It seems to me like it’s being used just for whenever there’s a profit available,” Yung said.

Medvigy maintains that the County must continue to work with PVJR for now and said it would be premature to pull its contract with it. He added that terminating the contract before investigations are complete would be premature and make the County liable for a lawsuit.

“[Marshall and Yung] have been trying to pull the contract from the very beginning, and that’s very short-sighted. It’s all primarily because of our operator, and the issues with the operator … This is long-term planning,” Medvigy said. “... If [Eric Temple] gets out of compliance, then certainly we will consider all potential action.”

Under Section 3 of the lease agreement, the County cannot pull its contract unless PVJR does not comply with the required remediation in 30 days. Investigations into PVJR are still ongoing.