Robin Froerer, co-owner of Owyhee Produce, a local onion firm, said she spent the last year trying to find a solution to a railroad crossing dilemma that potentially limits access to her family's prime farm ground. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)
NYSSA – Onion producer Robin Froerer says she’s been getting the runaround.
Malheur County officials for a year have promised to help her operation deal with the impending closure of a key railroad crossing, she said. The closure could disrupt one of the county’s largest farming operations.
The Froerers are concerned with the Gem Avenue rail crossing of the Union Pacific Railroad line about two miles north of Nyssa. They have used the crossing since the early 1990s through a rental agreement with Union Pacific to haul onions and other commodities from their property on east of the tracks.
Union Pacific has told the Froerers and the county it needs to close the crossing to make way for long trains to access the new Treasure Valley Reload Center.
Closing the crossing means the Froerers may haul their goods several miles north over what is basically a dirt track to reach another railroad crossing, this one at King Avenue.
That means the Froerers, who own Owyhee Produce, a major local onion packing firm, will potentially incur $240,000 a year in new hauling costs.
Now, the Froerers farm a total of 4,000 acres – including 1,100 near the Gem Avenue railroad crossing – and employ 125 people during the height of the harvest season. Robin Froerer estimated her farm sends more than 2,000 trucks across the Gem Avenue crossing each harvest.
The local land use impasse evolved over the past year to entangle, Malheur County, Union Pacific, the Malheur County Economic Development Board, the Froerers and Alscott Farms.
Froerer said she sought assistance from Greg Smith, Malheur County Economic Development director and Brad Baird, the president of Anderson Perry & Associates Inc., handling the engineering on the reload facility.
Froerer also hunted for help from the Malheur County Planning and Zoning Commission.
“We’ve got nowhere. I’ve learned a lot, I guess the hard way,” said Froerer.
The Froerers and the county each hired attorneys to help unravel the problem, but more than a year after she first raised concerns about the crossing, she said she still doesn’t have a resolution. The attorney hired by the county - Garrett Stephenson, an attorney at the Portland law firm of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt PC, cost taxpayers $5,000 so far. The county is using money in its economic development budget for the expense.
“Everyone seems to be coming out pretty good on this. But I don’t want to go down because of it,” said Froerer.
She said she isn’t sure what will happen next but fears that with the Gem Avenue crossing closed, access to more than 1,000 acres of prime agriculture land is blocked.
The reason Union Pacific wants to close the Gem Avenue crossing remains a bit murky.
Froerer said she isn’t sure why the railroad will move to shutter the crossing. During a November 2020 meeting of the Malheur County Development Corp., Baird said there was a “good chance” Union Pacific would close the crossing because “the Froerers haven’t followed the agreement with that crossing.”
At a Malheur County Court meeting in January, Smith said the crossing will be closed because “there is a safety issue as it relates to the crossing.”
“We’ve never been notified, not one time, by Union Pacific, that we were not doing something or we were not meeting the agreement. Not one word from anyone,” said Froerer.
“An analysis of the reload center’s rail and automobile traffic impacts – including projected rail switching operations, Nyssa-area rail and automobile traffic growth and alternative automobile access – determined the closure of the crossing as this location,” said Tim McMahan, a spokesman for Union Pacific.
McMahan said the railroad had an agreement “with the crossing’s owner with a 30-day termination clause that provides for removal of this crossing upon written notice.”
Neither Smith or Baird responded to email questions about the crossing but records obtained by The Enterprise show for nearly a year, officials knew about the Froerers’ concerns and initially pledged to help the local farm family.
In an April 2020, Baird wrote to Froerer indicating that discussion about creating a new crossing looked “promising.”
“We have learned that there is a good possibility of securing a new private crossing for you, since the one at Gem would be closed. UPRR understands that it would be eliminating one private crossing to create another one, resulting in no increase of traffic,” Baird wrote.
The idea to build a new crossing, though, fell through and Froerer said she doesn’t not know why.
“We were just told UP (Union Pacific) said no,” said Froerer.
Froerer also said she approached Union Pacific about using some of their 90-foot easement on for a new road south to the Gamble Road crossing, which has a railroad signal.
“They said no,” said Froerer.
In August, email traffic between Froerer and Baird showed the Malheur County Economic Development Corp. negotiated with Alscott Farms for an easement on their land for a road south to Gamble Road for the Froerers.
Baird reported to the development corporation board that the easement negotiations broke down.
“We are back to square one,” Baird said.
On Nov. 25, Baird emailed Froerer and told her the development corporation “haven’t had much luck with options we have discussed thus far with you (options we thought were going to happen but ultimately didn’t), but haven’t given up in pushing for other ideas to present for your consideration.”
Baird wrote that “it is the railroad that is insisting the crossing be closed,” and asked if he and Smith could meet with Froerer to discuss options.
During a Dec. 15 meeting, Froerer said she asked Smith if he could “apply pressure to Union Pacific, go to them and say, ‘Hey listen, we have to come up with an alternative.’”
“His words were ‘Absolutely not,’” said Froerer.
Froerer said Baird contacted her again, by email, late in December and wrote “Greg and I are taking a different approach with UPRR to see if we can have success through other avenues.”
“We have not heard from either of them since then. I am not sure if it is because attorneys are involved now or why,” said Froerer.
In late December, Froerer began to independently reach out to Union Pacific to find a solution. Email records show Froerer and Jake Bevan, food and beverage products manager for Union Pacific in Idaho and Colorado, discussed the issue during a Dec. 23 phone call.
Froerer said Bevan told her that promises from Smith, Baird and Malheur County Economic Development to provide another crossing to access their land was “presumptive and careless.” Froerer also said Bevan told her Smith and Baird had no authority to make such statements.
In January, the Froerers floated an idea for her family to build an overpass in the area to compensate for the loss of the crossing. Froerer said the county agreed to allow her family to use its easement by the tracks.
Froerer said she also approached Union Pacific about using its 90-foot easement from its tracks for the overpass.
“They said we will make you follow the 90-foot setback,” said Froerer.
That meant, said Froerer, the cost of the overpass jumped from $1.5 million to $10 million.
“Union Pacific has been difficult to work with at best,” said Froerer.
And the county? Froerer said she hasn’t “heard one word from Mr. Baird or Mr. Smith since the end of December.”
Meanwhile, Froerer said she also sought help from others in county government. Froerer said she met with then-County Commissioner Larry Wilson, who told her she needed to go to the county court to voice her concerns about the crossing closure and an alternative route.
Froerer said she tried last fall to set up a meeting with the county commissioners, but that was derailed by Eric Evans, the county planning director.
“He said you can’t meet with them because they are our (land use) appeal board,” said Froerer She then asked if she could bring the issue to the county planning committee but was told by her attorney and Union Pacific that neither the planning and zoning board nor Baird or Smith had jurisdiction over Union Pacific property.
“So, I asked Eric, how do I do this? I can’t talk to the county court and I can’t talk to P and Z. Where do I go from here? What do I do?” Froerer said.
Froerer said Evans told her “I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t get involved.”
Froerer, though, didn’t take no for an answer. Instead she and members of her family showed up at a November planning and zoning meeting.
At the meeting, the Froerers made it clear they wanted answers to the rail crossing dilemma.
Froerer said she knew the planning commission had no jurisdiction over the rail crossing but felt she had to get her concerns on the record somewhere.
Froerer said earlier this month that some progress forward was made on the crossing issue. Now, her family is independently working to get an easement from Alscott Farms so a road can be built south to Gamble Road.
The proposed road will go south from Gem Avenue, across Arcadia Lake to link up with Chestnut Avenue to meet Gamble Road.
Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, said that until negotiations between all the parties is complete, he had no comment.
“I know nothing other than they are negotiating,” said Joyce.
A lot of details still need to be worked out, said Froerer.
“We are trying to get everyone on the same page. Trying to get something concrete,” said Froerer.
Froerer said she is optimistic but cautious.
“We are getting closer to working something out and getting access on the southern end.”
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
YOU CAN SUPPORT THIS KIND OF WORK
The Enterprise relies on community support to fund vital local journalism. You can help us do more.
SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription is $5 a month.
GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.
ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute, knowing your support goes towards more local journalism you can trust.