A train engine idles on the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Aug. 8, 2018

The legal battle between the operator of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad and its owner, Clark County, continues with the state Court of Appeals now granting review of a ruling in the case based on where lawsuits were filed.

On Nov. 19, the Court of Appeals Division II ruled to grant discretionary review over a previous ruling in Clark County Superior Court that a lawsuit between the county and the operator could not have its venue changed. The combined suit stems from two filed by Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR), the operator, and Clark County against the other in March. Those suits deal with the validity of a lease the county and PVJR had in place for operation of the railroad.

The Court of Appeals decision stated that PVJR’s request to change venue was valid, given that the operator technically resides in King County, not Clark County, and based on case law either King County or one adjacent to Clark would be an appropriate venue, but not Clark County itself.

“The trial court appears to have committed obvious error in denying (PVJR’s) motion to change venue,” the ruling stated. 

It added that if the error was not corrected further proceedings in the case would be “useless.”

In a release following the decision, PVJR called the county’s suit “misdirected” and “expensive,” stating the county had spent more than $231,000 in legal fees.

“The money being squandered by Clark County on legal fees instead of investing in public health, safety and infrastructure is unbelievable, when instead, the County could benefit from more jobs and increased tax revenues if they honor their lease and implement ESB 5517,” PVJR President Eric Temple stated in the release. 

Engrossed Senate Bill 5517 was 2017 legislation that allowed for industrial development along short line railroads such as Chelatchie Prairie, and prior to questions over the legality of the lease between the county and PVJR, the county had been pursuing implementation of the law.

The county’s argument in the legal battle is that the lease agreement, which PVJR inherited in 2012 from a prior operator who signed it in 2004, was not signed off by the then-county commissioners. Initially separate suits, PVJR announced their filing March 15 though according to court records it was not filed until March 19. Clark County’s own filing was four days prior, and the timeline was something Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee brought up when asked for comment on the ruling.

“I do note the irony the PVJR continues to expend time and resources fighting about venue when it originally announced through the media that it was suing the County in Clark County Superior Court before the County filed its suit,” Henessee wrote in a response. 

He reiterated that because both suits were filed in Clark County it was an appropriate venue, though according to the appeals court ruling, that did not waive PVJR’s right to request a change.

Henessee wrote that the ruling granting review did not have bearing on the merits of the case, and was less of a victory for the operator than something that would prolong the legal process. He wrote it was “ironic” that PVJR would bring up the cost of the case given what he believes were attempts by the operator to delay the case with the appeal.

As of press deadline a date for the review had yet to be scheduled.

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