Thursday, February 2, 2023
Feb. 2, 2023

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Annual holiday tree train rides suspended

County and railroad operator are in dispute over railroad lease

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:

An increasingly bitter dispute between Clark County and a railroad operator has spilled into a Christmas-themed train excursion sponsored by a local nonprofit.

The Chelatchie Prairie Railroad, a nonprofit that offers train rides near Yacolt for education and entertainment purposes, reached out to 165 households on Friday telling them that their reservations for its Christmas tree train rides would be canceled for this weekend and possibly the next unless some sort of resolution can be reached.

Doug Auburg, the group’s treasurer and crew scheduler, said that the excursion involves a train ride on a stretch of the railroad, a visit with Santa Claus, cookies, hot beverages and a Christmas tree to take home. He said that families have made the event part of their holiday traditions for years, and it’s been the biggest fundraiser for the all-volunteer nonprofit.

But he said that earlier this week his group received bad news from the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, the primary leaseholder for the county-owned railroad that the nonprofit uses for its excursions under a sublease. He said that the company told the nonprofit that it would not allow the use of the railroad and applied a derail to the track, a device that prevents trains from running on it.

“We’re caught between these two parties with lawyers,” said Auburg. “I don’t want to hire a lawyer, and I don’t want to make either one of them enemies. I would like to get out from in between them and do what we want to do.”

Eric Temple, the president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, said that he was left with no choice. He said he and his company were exposed to too much legal liability after the county refused to clear up ambiguity around the lease he holds to operate the railroad. A press release issued by the company on Friday referred to Clark County as “the Grinch who stole Christmas.”

But Clark County Council Chair Marc Boldt said that the county has acted in good faith and will proceed with the lease unless it is successfully challenged in court.

“The lease has been called into question, but we are going with the lease is still valid,” he said.

Contract conflicts

Since last year, Clark County has been implementing a change to the state’s land-use law that allowed for freight-dependent industrial development along the county-owned Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.

As the county has sought to implement the new law, it’s drawn more scrutiny to the lease that Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad has held with the county for the last 14 years to operate the railroad.

In October, David McDonald, a lawyer with local environmental group Friends of Clark County, wrote to Clark County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Emily Sheldrick. He wrote that he could find no record that Clark County’s governing board had ever approved the lease, which is required under the county’s code. Since then, McDonald said he has not received any records showing that the lease was properly approved.

In November, Boldt said on Clark County Focus, a local access channel, that no one could find out if the lease was actually voted on by the county commission, and he didn’t think it was valid.

Temple said that earlier this week, an attorney representing Clark County sent a letter to his attorney stating that “the County believes the Lease to either be invalid or expired.” He said that if the lease is invalid, it opens him to significant liability on the stretch of railroad near Yacolt by the nonprofit Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.

He explained that there is an amendment to the lease held by Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad where the county agrees to indemnify and hold the company harmless for any liability for accidents that may happen on any parts of the railroad that other organizations may have a sublease on, such as the nonprofit.

“My attorney said to me, ‘You’re screwed if something happened, because they walked away from the indemnification language,’ ” said Temple.

He said that he has a good relationship with the nonprofit and isn’t happy about preventing them from using the railroad. But he said that an accident could bankrupt him and his family.

Previously, Temple has clashed with the county after he accused a prosecuting attorney of having a conflict of interest, which was dismissed by Sheldrick. Temple said that he suspects the county is retaliating against him for raising the issue. He also said Boldt accused him of causing him to lose re-election because of the proposed rail projects (which Boldt denied). 

“This is what I get for blowing the whistle on the attorney?” said Temple. “Are we supposed to fear our government, really?”

Sheldrick could not be reached for comment and has previously declined to discuss the validity of the lease. A news release sent out by Clark County states that it has been in discussion with the company “regarding legal relationships that control aspects of the rail line operation.” The news release states that the company can “continue operation of the railroad until a legal authority determines otherwise.” The news release does not clearly state that the county considers the lease to be valid.

Boldt said that while the lease has been called into question, the county has not said it’s invalid. He said there’s no need to affirm the lease because it could still be subject to a legal challenge. He dismissed Temple’s concerns that he’s exposed to liability.

“This, really to tell the truth, hurts our future with Eric Temple,” said Boldt.

Temple said that he’s lost money operating the railroad and wants the county to codify that the lease is indeed valid. He said that if the county asserts that it’s not valid, he will file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the county.

Hope for weekend

Auburg said that in addition to the Christmas train rides the group was also planning on giving free rides to a group of vulnerable children as well employees of BNSF, which may also be imperiled.

He said that the holiday train ride packages run from $80 to $100. He said that families can still visit Santa and pick up their trees, but will have to skip the train ride. He said he’ll give full or partial refunds to customers, which he said could cost his group tens of thousands of dollars.

He said that next weekend was going to be the last Christmas train ride of the year.

“At this point, we’ve sent out the notice to our customers, so I think this weekend is lost,” said Auburg. “I have some hope that next weekend may be retrieved.”

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Columbian political reporter