Chelatchie Prairie operator files federal lawsuit alleging retaliation

Eric Temple says the lawsuit over PVJR’s lease to operate the county-owned line came after vocal criticism of the county and several employees

CLARK COUNTY — Did Clark County retaliate against the operator of their Chelatchie Prairie rail line because of his outspoken criticism of them? That’s the allegation raised in a new lawsuit filed by Eric Temple and Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR) in federal court.

The Chelatchie Prairie rail line in Brush Prairie. File photo by Chris Brown
The Chelatchie Prairie rail line in Brush Prairie. File photo by Chris Brown

The lawsuit, which names the county, County Manager Shawn Henessee, former County Chair Marc Boldt, and Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik, alleges that Temple’s outspoken criticism of the county led directly to their attempt to invalidate his 2004 lease agreement.

“We now have the evidence from the County’s own records that each and every element of their lawsuit are fraudulent,” said Temple in a release announcing the lawsuit. “The only remaining question is, did the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office want retaliation so badly they chose not to look?  That would be bad. Or did they know all along and mislead the Council? That would be really bad. Or did they fully inform the Council and both groups colluded to retaliate against me by filing a fraudulent lawsuit? That would be really really bad.”

In 2017, the state approved a law that would allow freight rail dependent development along county-owned shortline railroads. The law was achieved, in no small part, due to the work of a lobbyist hired by PVJR. At that time, then-County Chair Marc Boldt praised the law as something that would help to bring jobs and economic development to the region.

In a letter of support for the proposed legislation sent in February of 2016, the county praised PVJR.

“Since the PVJR entered into its lease agreement with Clark County in 2004, they have successfully attracted new customers and grown carload volumes handling 17 times more carloads than in 2004,” the letter read. “The PVJR is an important partner in attracting manufacturing businesses and associated jobs to Clark County.”

The bad blood began after the county set up a committee to investigate implementation of the law. Temple sat on the board in an advisory capacity, but several members expressed concern over what they felt was an attempt to control the outcome of the process.

What the committee submitted for the county to review included a much larger proposed development area than had been initially called for, and the allowed list of uses included potential nuclear power generation, though any such use would have required further approval by the council.

That recommendation met with substantial public pushback, and resulted in the council reverting back to an earlier map for development along the line, which excluded the now discarded Brush Prairie rural industrial landbank.

Temple later alleged that the commission had intentionally muddied the waters, submitting a proposal they knew would meet with public outcry. He also accused Deputy Prosecutor Christine Cook of a conflict of interest, due to her prior work with environmental groups including 1000 Friends of Oregon, and public comments in opposition to the development of rural farmland.

After those comments went public, Temple says, is when the county suddenly decided to look into allegations made by the environmental group Friends of Clark County that there may have been problems with the initial lease agreement.

The lawsuit alleges that, after 15 years of affirming that the lease was valid, in late August of 2018, Henessee and Boldt authorized legal council to examine the validity of the lease yet again. 

Two months later, the county announced that plans to implement the freight rail dependent uses law would be placed on hold until 2019 as they investigated whether PVJR in fact had a legal lease to operate the line. 

The lawsuit says Temple and his representatives met with the county in November, seeking arbitration to determine the validity of the lease. But Temple argues several attempts at a resolution were rejected. 

Things took another turn for the worse in December when PVJR took steps to cancel the Christmas Tree Train, run by the all-volunteer Chelatchie Prairie Railroad (BYCX), which operates under a sublease. Temple argued the dispute over PVJR’s lease put an insurance policy carried by BYCX in doubt, leaving them open to lawsuits in the case of death or injury.

A day later, the county issued a press release putting blame for the cancellation on PVJR and urging the company to let the holiday tree drive continue. That was followed by a public condemnation at a Dec. 11 council meeting, introduced by Boldt, stating, in part: “”The Council condemns the actions of PVJR prohibiting operation of the Christmas Tree Train, strongly encourages PVJR to reopen the track to permit BYCX’s operations subject to an appropriate interim arrangement, and urges PVJR to reopen negotiations in good faith as promptly as possible.” 

A day later, the president of BYCX notified the council that it had been discovered that they did not, in fact, have the required insurance, and praising PVJR for helping to uncover the issue and work to hammer out a solution. An interim agreement was signed later that same day.

In March of last year, frustrated with a lack of action by the county and a refusal to enter arbitration, Temple publicly said his company would consider suing for damages, and suggesting that Henessee should be fired over the matter.

The county filed its lawsuit on March 15, with Temple and PVJR filing a countersuit on the same day in Clark County court. The two lawsuits have since been merged, and PVJR has argued that the case should be heard by a judge outside of Clark County. A Clark County judge ruled against them, but a lower appeals court upheld PVJR’s desire to move to a different jurisdiction. The county has since appealed that decision.

In its suit, the county argues on several fronts: one is that the 2004 lease, arranged by then-Public Works Director Pete Capell, was never formally agreed to by the County Board of Commissioners, an allegation Temple says he has evidence is untrue.

Another argument includes the fact that the county has never received rent from PVJR as part of their deal. The county’s lawsuit alleges this would run afoul of state laws prohibiting the gifting of government property. Under the terms of the deal, PVJR would only have to pay the county after the number of rail cars used on the line exceeds 1,000 per year or 25,000 annual passengers. PVJR says the highest number of cars the line has seen per year is 853, though the county further alleges PVJR has violated the lease terms by refusing to allow them access to their records. Temple has refuted both of those claims.

The move by Temple to file in U.S. District Court seeks to force the county into arbitration, rather than settling the validity of the lease through the courts. It also seeks monetary damages, including compensation for legal fees in the case.

“I file this lawsuit not only for myself and my family, my employees and their families, but for every Clark County citizen who may consider criticizing their government in the future,” Temple said. “I poured 15 years of my life into Clark County and was the driving force behind creating an economic opportunity worth billions to Clark County’s citizens over the life of my contract.  I trust the jury’s punitive and compensatory damages will reflect the magnitude of what the County is trying to steal from me.”

A spokesperson for the county said they are aware of the new lawsuit, but are not prepared to issue a statement at this time.

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