Everything you Wish you Knew about the Railroad Controversy in Clark County
History of Freight Rail Dependent Use (FRDU)
In 2017, the WA State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5517 allowing development “adjacent” to short line railroads in Clark and Okanogan counties.
This legislation was heavily lobbied for by Eric Temple, owner of the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR) and Clark County, which opened the door for extensive development on either side of the entire 33-mile railroad line. This area is known as an overlay (an area set aside for special uses), and is zoned differently than the original zone of the property. The overlay became known as Freight Rail Dependent Uses (FRDU), meaning for use by businesses that need freight rail access.
In 2018, the county created the FRDU Advisory Board, which recommended an expansive overlay consisting of up to a mile on either side of the rail line up to Battle Ground, and listed almost every single “use” in the code to be permitted outright or allowed as a conditional use (permitted with certain conditions), inclusive of heavy industrial uses. At that time, the sitting county councilors approved a scaled down version of the overlay allowing for 500 feet on either side of the railroad between 119th Street and 149th Street. However, the council refused to take up the nature and extent of the allowable uses because of growing dissatisfaction with Eric Temple, the owner and operator of PVJR.
All efforts to work on the FRDU came to a grinding halt in 2019 when the county and Temple/PVJR filed competing lawsuits on multiple issues surrounding the existing lease. The county and PVJR settled in late 2022. The county then engaged in behind the scenes contract negotiations with Temple which excluded members of the public. The Council then put the new lease agreement on the separate business agenda for approval in December 2022, giving the public less than 48 hours to view it. When newly elected Councilor Sue Marshall attempted to “slow the train” down regarding approval, Councilor Medvigy provided strong resistance to Councilor Marshall and the Council approved the lease.
For the moment, the County is not trying to expand the existing overlay, leaving further expansion for inclusion in the Comprehensive Plan (which is in progress and due to be completed by June 2025).
Zoning, Public Input, and the FDRU
The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s office (CCPA) has consistently and steadfastly stated that urban services (water, sewer) cannot be extended into the rural area, including areas within the FRDU overlay. However, a PVJR attorney has submitted a contrarian view and, as of December 2023, the Council has not made a final determination on whose legal advice it should accept. In addition, County staff’s opinion has been in concert with the CCPA’s opinion, and the responsible State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) official has also stated that a full environmental analysis will need to be completed if the Council decides to add Heavy Industrial (IH) uses to the current FRDU overlay (or any future overlay). Temple is advocating for the land along the entire rail line to be designated either Heavy Industrial (IH) or Railroad Industrial (IR), and at least Councilor Medvigy has expressed interest in making those zoning changes with little to no public input.
PVJR Threatens Use of Eminent Domain
Starting in February 2023, Eric Temple has sent several communications to the county stating that as a railroad operator, PVJR is not subject to state laws, local laws, or local ordinances, and is subject to little or no oversight by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB). Those assertions stand in stark contrast to the language of the lease agreement he signed.
Temple has sent at least one communication threatening to exercise “eminent domain” in support of rail activities and claiming to have powers similar to that of a US Marshal. He asserts that PVJR can use eminent domain to take private property near the railroad to construct rail line spurs to businesses wanting access to the rail anywhere along the line. Thus, any property owner (according to Temple) within a mile on either side of the “Line of Railroad” (if the County adopts the FRDU advisory committee’s proposal of one mile on either side of the tracks) may be subjected to either construction on, or the taking of, their property without PVJR having to comply with any state or local laws, including environmental laws.
PVJR is Already Causing Environmental Degradation
PVJR has engaged in major construction activities in two environmentally sensitive areas, causing obvious environmental degradation, including the killing of migrating fish (like salmon and trout) in violation of the Endangered Species Act. This shows that Mr. Temple intends to make good on his stated agenda and belief that he does not have to follow any state, local and, in some cases, even federal laws:
- Temple’s businesses have clear-cut an approximately 20-acre parcel of protected oaks in and adjacent to wetlands near the Cedars Neighborhood in Central Vancouver. In addition to clear cutting the oaks, he has dumped scores of truckloads of fill and engaged in unauthorized grading of the environmentally sensitive areas. This is next to Curtin Creek Natural Area, which is County property owned by the County’s Legacy Lands and Clean Water Programs that was recently restored to provide enhanced habitat for fish and wildlife, as well as to promote clean water.
- Second, PVJR has logged a 3-acre piece of property and built a road at the north end of the railroad near a proposed aggregate mine site in Chelatchie without any local, state or federal permits. Several federal and state environmental law enforcement agencies have made at least two visits to the site with representatives of PVJR and determined that the environmentally sensitive areas have been adversely impacted. Neighbors have confirmed that at the same time PVJR conducted their unauthorized and unpermitted road construction through wetlands and across streams, the water in their downstream creek dried up and became so full of silt that they observed hundreds of fish (some of them endangered) killed as a direct result of the unpermitted activity.
PVJR’s Actions Threaten Every Community Within Miles of this Railroad Line
At present, the FRDU zoning is limited to an area within 500′ of the rail on each side. However, PVJR’s position is that it can extend beyond that area, and there is a possibility for that overlay to be extended to a mile on each side of the track between 119th Ave and 149th St. We invite you to travel along the rail line and venture into the public areas adjacent to the railroad and you will see that there are many homes less than 20 feet from the rail – up and down the 33 miles of railroad. Industrial activity would put the health and safety of those communities at risk.
- Specifically, we know through public records requests that Temple sent an email to the county stating that the Ackerland property by Laurin Middle School would be an ideal parcel of land for an asphalt batch plant. Asphalt batch plants cause air, light, and noise pollution – they should never be placed near heavily populated areas and certainly not near a school.
- The rail line also runs right through central Battle Ground. The impact to Battle Ground residents would be significant if Temple’s plan came to fruition.
In 2023, Friends of Clark County challenged the Surface Mining Overlay (SMO) that the county placed on 330 acres of exquisite forest known as Chelatchie Bluff. The Washington Growth Management Hearings Board agreed with FOCC that the county should have completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) prior to allowing for the SMO on the land. However, the county and mining interests do not want to complete that EIS as ordered by the GMA Hearings Board and have appealed that decision to the Washington Court of Appeals. This SMO and mining plan was the reason Temple gave for the destruction PVJR wrought on Chelatchie in October because he wants to ensure the rock gets transported on the rails.
Public records show the nature of Eric Temple’s correspondence with the County over the years has been predominantly bullying and threatening. As previously mentioned, his missives to the County are riddled with assertions that he in no way has to comply with laws. Imagine the harm to environmentally sensitive areas, neighborhoods, schools, parks, our clean water, and our air if a rogue operator does not have to comply with any law that has been designed to keep us safe from harm. PVJR’s unpermitted actions threaten the documented points of origin for Clark County aquifers and our clean water supply.
THE CHELATCHIE PRAIRIE RAILROAD – THE EARLY DAYS
Let Us Be Clear – We All LOVE the Christmas Train!
The Chelatchie Prairie Railroad dates back to 1888 when it was known as the Vancouver, Klickitat, & Yakima Railroad. In the early 1900s, it was extended to Yacolt and began daily passenger service to Yacolt, which served as an important freight link for the area’s booming timber industry.
It wasn’t until 1960 that the tracks were extended northeast to Chelatchie. Clark County purchased the line in the early 1980s and initially leased it to the Lewis and Clark Railway.
In 2004, Clark County leased the line to the Columbia Basin Railroad, a private company and predecessor to the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR), for conducting its operations.
Over time, with severe winter weather, lack of maintenance, and changes in ownership, the track-bed, rails, bridges, and buildings north of Battle Ground have deteriorated. A group of community volunteers came together in 1998 with the goal of restoring the line and building the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad into a functioning historical railroad. Working with the support of Clark County, the track from Moulton Falls to Chelatchie Prairie has been restored. Work continues on improving the track and upgrading equipment with the goal of restoring service to Battle Ground.
Delightful excursions for residents on the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad have taken place for years, traveling through the historic logging country of north Clark County as it loops from the town of Yacolt to Lucia Falls and back, stopping for a half hour at Moulton Falls Park on the way. A trestle crosses the East Fork of the Lewis River.
In 2013, the lease for operation of the railroad was transferred to the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR), a private company owned by Eric Temple. Temple is not a Clark County resident, in fact far from it. According to records, he lives in a 10 million dollar home on the water in Medina, Washington in the same neighborhood as Bill Gates.
More info can be found at the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad website: Railroad History | Clark County (wa.gov)
Photo courtesy of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad website
Article submitted by Jackie Lane and Ann Foster – December 2023