Christmas Tree Train back this weekend after legal dispute

The operator is also adding another weekend to make up for the one that was canceled

YACOLT — A last minute agreement will allow the Christmas Tree Train to return to the Chelatchie Prairie Rail line this weekend.

The move comes a day after the Clark County Council approved a resolution condemning the operator of the line, Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR), for their decision to shut down the popular Christmas tradition last weekend.

“Nothing like being told you don’t like children and Santa Claus,” quipped an obviously frustrated PVJR President Eric Temple in a phone interview with ClarkCountyToday.com.

The 2017 version of the Chelatchie Prairie Christmas Tree Train is shown here. Photo by Mike Schultz
The 2017 version of the Chelatchie Prairie Christmas Tree Train is shown here. Photo by Mike Schultz

“I’ve run more special holiday family events than everyone in that room combined, so give me a break,” says Temple. “It’s just easy politics to kiss babies and pet puppies and stuff.”

The surprising cancellation of the Christmas Tree Train last weekend came following a dispute over the lease between the county and PVJR. Clark County owns the 33-mile Chelatchie Prairie rail line, but has an agreement with PVJR to run it. The Chelatchie Prairie Railroad has a sublease agreement with PVJR to run trains on a part of the track near Yacolt.

The county’s plan to allow freight rail dependent development along part of the line has drawn legal scrutiny, and an attorney for the environmental group Friends of Clark County recently notified Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Emily Sheldrick that no record of the lease agreement being approved by the then-Board of County Commissioners could be found.

While County Chair Marc Boldt told Clark County Focus of CVTV that he believed the lease was still valid, Temple says he was informed by attorneys representing the county that they believed the lease agreement was not valid. Temple says the lack of clarity left him no option but to tell the Christmas Tree Train operators, BYCX, that the event would have to stop until the legal issues were settled.

“The irony is not lost on me,” Temple says, “you have a group of people who are completely indemnified by law, and who just stripped me of my indemnification, telling me that I’m a bad guy for not putting my family at risk of bankruptcy.”

The Chelatchie Prairie Christmas Tree train will run an extra weekend this year after the first weekend was canceled. Photo by Mike Schultz
The Chelatchie Prairie Christmas Tree train will run an extra weekend this year after the first weekend was canceled. Photo by Mike Schultz

Last week, BYCX notified 165 people that their reservations for this past weekend’s excursions were being canceled.

“This is our biggest fundraiser of the year and we took a significant loss because of people asking for refunds,” said BYCX President Randy Williams at Tuesday’s County Council meeting.

“I have a special job on the railroad at Christmastime,” says Williams. “I wear a big red suit and a beard. Normally I would get approximately 500 kids on my lap over a weekend. Last weekend, I had less than 50.”

In a resolution approved unanimously on Tuesday, the county strongly condemned the actions by PVJR, alleging that the operator chose to shut down the Christmas Tree Train despite being told the county intended to honor the lease agreement. Temple says that’s a false statement.

In a letter to the council, Temple says it was the county’s failure to properly enforce the sublease with BYCX that led to the issues last week.

“Under the sublease, BYCX was required to indemnify Clark County, but not PVJR,” Temple says. “BYCX was also required to name both Clark County and PVJR as additional insured.”

Temple says that part never happened, and the county failed to make sure that BYCX was fully in compliance with the terms of the sublease.

The resolution also accuses PVJR of only shutting down the Christmas Tree Train, while continuing other operations. Temple says that’s also a false flag, because those other operations are Federally mandated services, and protected under a different agreement.

According to BYCX, and agreement needed to be in place by noon today in order to get the trains ready for this weekend. Temple says outside legal counsel hired by the county on Tuesday agreed that it was the county’s responsibility to provide legal protection for BYCX.

A statement on the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad Facebook page credits PVJR and its attorneys for working hard to reach an agreement, and takes responsibility for the closure.

“There was a minor insurance issue on the BYCX insurance policy that prevented the train from running. The fault was with BYCX in not naming Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad on the policy,” said Kerry Barton with BYCX in a statement. “That has been fixed. Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad was correct in restricting track usage until the correct insurance was in place.”

An open letter

Councilors and Chair, thank you for your help getting this situation cleared up and helping us getting back running.  We will be on the tracks this weekend as scheduled. We will also be adding an additional weekend December 22nd and 23rd  to our schedule to allow some of the passengers who cancelled the opportunity to still ride this season.

In trying to dissect this insurance issue, it appears that at some past annual insurance renewal, Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad “PVJR” was dropped from the indemnification listing on the BYCX liability policy, hence the source of this issue.  Obviously in future renewals, this will be a checkpoint for us to verify.

In closing, I want to thank Eric Temple and his team at PVJR for his thoughtfulness and timely help getting this resolved.  We feel that this insurance issue was totally a BYCX issue and Eric’s actions were correct and justified. We have worked hard together to build a strong relationship and want to continue strengthening that relationship.

Thanks again and Best Regards,

Randy Williams
President, BYCX

The good news for people who had to cancel this past weekend, BYCX says they’ll be adding an additional weekend on December 22 and 23, and running two trains each day. They’ll be reaching out to people who had their reservation canceled to offer them the opportunity to reschedule for that added weekend.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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