Litigation stemming from a shelved attempt to implement state law allowing for industrial development along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad continues to grow as the railroad operator has filed against Clark County, asking for a judge a county over to rule on an interpretation of the law the operator feels is incorrect.
On Jan. 30, Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR) filed a complaint in Skamania County Superior Court against the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad owner, Clark County. The lawsuit asks for declaratory judgment regarding state law amended by 2017’s Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5517, which was intended to allow for freight rail-dependent development along short line railroads like Chelatchie Prairie.
PVJR President Eric Temple said the lawsuit’s focus is on an interpretation of the changes in law brought on by ESB 5517 by one of Clark County’s civil attorneys, Christine Cook. The suit claims the legislation allowed for expansion of utility services — specifically sewer — to land in the area designated for freight rail-dependent uses. The suit argues Cook’s interpretation that sewer expansion wasn’t allowed there was counter to what the law intended.
Temple said that ESB 5517 allowed for a different category of infrastructure than what was currently allowed under state law — urban facilities and rural facilities, the latter generally prohibiting sewer services in rural areas. The bill, the lawsuit argues, allows for urban services like sewer to be allowed in rural areas along railroads like the Chelatchie Prairie.
“Basically they created a third type of infrastructure,” Temple remarked.
The Skamania County suit joins other litigation filed by PVJR against the county regarding short-line railroad development implementation. Earlier in January the operator filed in federal court, alleging the county violated federal arbitration law and retaliated against the operator and Temple for speaking out against issues he saw in the county’s implementation of the law.
In state court, PVJR has an appeal regarding litigation dealing with issues over a contract the operator had with the county. Filed in March, the litigation drawing the appeal followed stalling mediation over questions about the contract’s validity, an issue the county had identified as it was attempting to implement ESB 5517’s changes.
In November a state Court of Appeals commissioner granted discretionary review over an appeal by PVJR that the litigation about the contract dispute was incorrectly filed in Clark County. Temple said the county has appealed that motion to a three-judge panel, expecting a decision by the panel soon.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t been done yet,” Temple said, saying the panel’s review was taking longer from receipt of documents to decision than the initial commissioner’s granting of review.
For the latest lawsuit in Skamania County, Temple argues that given the past work of the county to implement new law, a judgment ruling in PVJR’s favor would meet that end. Prior to questions over the contract addressed in the Clark County suits that led to the state court appeal, Clark County Council had paused work on implementation, at the time to wait until the then-upcoming 2018 general election results determined the makeup of council the following year.
With legal questions abound, the county hasn’t revisited the implementation. When reached by The Reflector for comment on the latest suit and prior filings, Clark County Manager Shawn Hennessey said with pending litigation he couldn’t speak on the matter.
“The county has been trying to get this business park started for 15 years,” Temple remarked. “They should actually support this (declarative) action.”