An ongoing dispute between Mt. Hood Railroad and Wildwood Academy over parking came to a head Wednesday morning when the railroad set up impromptu barriers — including a parked van, a backhoe, cable wires, cinder blocks and railroad ties — to block all outside access to railroad property.
Police were called at approximately 6:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, when Mt. Hood Railroad added a parked vehicle and a backhoe to existing barriers set up around the parking lot, blocking all vehicular access to the lot with the exception of the spaces rented by Hood River Hotel.
“Law enforcement doesn’t get involved in civil issues” except to ensure that everyone involved is safe, said Police Chief Neal Holste. The only potential safety problem with the barriers is that they block fire access to the structures within the parking lot, Holste said, and Hood River Fire was contacted to ensure that there was proper fire access.
“It’ll become, I’m sure, a civil or legal matter,” said Ron Kaufman, general manager of Mt. Hood Railroad, adding that the trail granting access from State Street is sufficient access to the Wildwood property. “We’re following every aspect of our property rights.”
The situation centers around an easement agreement between Iowa Pacific Holdings, which owns Mt. Hood Railroad, and Gleeson’s Professional Building LLC, which owns the Wildwood property.
The easement, signed in 1998, allows employees and visitors of the Wildwood property — which currently houses three tenants: Wildwood Academy, Wildwood Events, and Story Gorge — to cross railroad property in order to access Wildwood’s property and six alloted parking spaces.
However, Wildwood patrons have been using railroad parking spaces when the allotted six were full or unavailable.
“They’ve continued to violate (the easement) and have people park in our lot,” Kaufman said.
The situation has been escalating for the past six months, according to Lydia Gildehaus, secretary at Wildwood Academy.
A “hallway” of barricades appeared halfway through the school year, Gildehaus said, that still allowed minimal access to Wildwood property; but as of July 10, the only ways to physically access the Wildwood property are to navigate the maze of barriers on foot, or to enter from a recently-completed hiking trail that connects to State Street.
All the while, Sean O’Connor, the owner of Story Gorge and a tenant in the Wildwood building, has watched the situation escalate.
“I’m an outside business, a tenant with a community-based business … it baffles me the community can be so far separated,” he said, adding that the whole point of the Wildwood building is to foster education and community. On a personal level, he said the hostile situation and difficulty accessing his business have been costly.
“I’m an independent artist, I need to feed my family,” he said. “There are negative impacts to my business. I’m mad and it hurts.”
“It’s escalating to the point of discomfort. There isn’t any emergency access in or out,” said Gildehaus. “Wildwood has camps going on right now. We’re having to escort the kids and families to camp. Parents have to park and walk the kids in.”
The Ruins has also been negatively affected by the situation, said Wildwood Events General Manager Ryan Huntington, primarily because “it looks like you’re not allowed to come down here.”
Wildwood Academy filed a temporary restraining order against Mt. Hood Railroad immediately following the incident on July 10, which was approved by a judge and requires Mt. Hood Railroad to honor the easement and allow access onto the property until the legal case is concluded. “That’s what it’s all about in the short term,” said Carrington Barrs, co-founder of Wildwood Academy and a Gleeson’s shareholder. “I am the common denominator between the tenant and the owners,” he said.
Wildwood has made attempts to come up with a rental agreement for the parking spaces at the same rate as the Hood River Hotel, which rents a section of the lot, but the railroad wanted to charge Wildwood more than Hood River Hotel’s rate, Huntington said.
“It’s really frustrating. We’ve tried to make a deal with them to rent the parking, but they don’t want to rent the parking,” said Huntington, adding that there have been a lot of “reasonable deals” — including an offer to set up paid parking meters in the lot — that the railroad rejected.
“They (the railroad) are pushing us until they either squeeze us out of business or until we pay them that amount of money,” he said.
Kaufman said that Mt. Hood Railroad has given Wildwood the chance to sort out the parking issue, but to no avail.
“They have had over a year to work our any sort of parking and they’ve neglected to do that,” he said.
Wildwood filed a lawsuit against Mt. Hood Railroad on Monday, at which time Iowa Pacific Holdings, the Chicago-based company that owns Mt. Hood Railroad, terminated the easement and had the parking lot barricaded.
“This is completely illegal as we have clear access and an easement to our property,” said Joe O’Neill, co-founder of Wildwood Academy, in a written statement. “It is, quite frankly, the most bizarre business situation I’ve ever been involved in.”
“We feel like we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do … but they’re asking for a lot of money,” said Barrs. “We reached an impasse, so we resorted to a lawsuit.”
When asked by a reporter about a rumored situation at The Ruins several months ago where free alcohol was handed out at an event to anyone who left a negative review on Mt. Hood Railroad’s Yelp page, Barrs said that the issue was immediately addressed with staff.
“(I) made it very clear that that’s illegal, nor do I want to resort to that kind of tactic,” he said.
Barrs also stated that the lawsuit is “nothing personal” against Kaufman or the railroad employees.
“This is all coming from the guy in Chicago. I have a lot of empathy for Ron and his employees at the railroad.”
(The “guy in Chicago” is Ed Ellis, the president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, who could not be reached for comment by press time.)