Friday, October 30, 2020
Oct. 30, 2020

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County, rail operator set for mediation

Officials, company at odds over issues related to development along line

By , Columbian political reporter

Following months of increasing rancor, Clark County and the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, the company contracted to operate the county-owned rail line, will enter mediation next month.

Over the last year, county officials and Eric Temple, the president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, have been at odds over the implementation of a change to state law that allows freight-dependent industrial development along a stretch of the 33-mile rail line in Brush Prairie.

The dispute reached a crescendo late last year, when county officials, including Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Emily Sheldrick and then-council Chair Marc Boldt, raised concerns over whether the lease was valid. Previously, David McDonald, a lawyer for local environmental group Friends of Clark County, questioned if the lease had been properly ratified by the county.

Concerned that the ambiguity over the lease exposed him to legal liability, Temple responded by temporarily blocking a nonprofit from using the rail line for its popular Christmas-themed excursion. In December, both sides agreed to abide by the lease for 90 days while undergoing mediation.

Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee mentioned the upcoming mediation during the county council’s Tuesday meeting. He didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

“I just hope that we will have this mediated and come to an agreement about what the lease states,” said Council Chair Eileen Quiring, who has been supportive of pursuing industrial development along the railroad.

But Temple said he is less optimistic about mediation. Temple signed the lease as vice president of Columbia Basin Railroad in 2004 and later purchased it for Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad in 2012. He said that he took a significant long-term risk by taking over the lease and criticized the county for what he says is a lack of “institutional knowledge” of the situation. After losing money on the lease for years, Temple could stand to start profiting off it once companies set up along the railroad.

“There are staff in the county that are upset that I might finally make money after investing 15 years of my life,” he said.

He said that the county will also benefit in the form of jobs and tax revenue. According to Temple’s calculations based on county data, property taxes generated from rezoned land next to the railroad would rise from the $871,750 collected in 2018 to $27.3 million.

Temple said that if mediation is unsuccessful and the county continues to question the lease’s validity, he will file a lawsuit against the county seeking more than $100 million in damages.

‘High probability of litigation’

Records obtained through a public records request show relations worsening as Temple and county officials argued over the lease and other issues. Records also show that Temple was irked when the county refused a deal he had arranged to take over the county’s Public Works facility on Northeast 78th Street and provide a new building for the department.

Records show that in August 2018, Temple emailed the county to complain that it hadn’t followed through on a 2005 agreement to rezone the area next to the railroad. He also wrote Heath Henderson, then the county’s director of public works, seeking to block the county from building a pedestrian bridge along the railroad. Temple said the bridge was in violation of the lease.

Temple told The Columbian that the pedestrian bridge was part of a planned trail. He said that he’s open to the trail but that the county needed to complete the rezoning first. He said that if people become accustomed to using the trail it would create more resistance to future industrial development.

In November, Temple wrote to Sheldrick complaining that Bridge 12, a crossing the railroad uses, was “near failure.” He wrote that the county was refusing to repair or replace it despite being required to do so under the lease and that he had secured $2.8 million from the state to repair it.

“They are failing on almost every issue under the contract,” Temple told The Columbian.

Emails show that Sheldrick was concerned that both parties were “operating without a valid lease” and that she attempted to negotiate a nine-month agreement. However, Temple wrote that he disagreed with concerns that the lease was invalid.

He also wrote that he was willing to meet with Henessee to renegotiate the lease. Emails show that Temple sought a meeting with Henessee in November. But Henessee responded that attorneys would need to be present.

“I would very much like to meet with you to discuss this issue. However, since you have indicated no willingness to sign a short-term lease nor renegotiate a long-term lease there is a high probability of litigation occurring,” wrote Henessee.