Local residents oppose railroad purchase

COVINGTON - Residents of rural southeastern Newton County are content with the little-used rail line that snakes from Porterdale, through their properties to Newborn, and on to Shadydale. What they don't want is a walking and biking trail to take its place.

More than 50 of those residents and others gathered at Starrsville United Methodist Church on Dixie Road Monday night for a chance to ask questions and share their opinions on a Newton County proposal to purchase the 14 miles of rail line that is traveled about once a week by a train serving an egg hatchery in Newborn. A representative from U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall's office was on hand to provide information and answer questions.

Newton County and city of Covington officials have expressed interest in purchasing the rail line - for different reasons - and held a joint work session in April to discuss the potential purchase. The county initially was interested in buying about five-tenths of an acre of railroad property behind the proposed downtown civic center, a project that is on hold due to the economy.

Since it became known that Norfolk Southern would sell more of the line, Newton County Commission Chairman Kathy Morgan said she would like to secure the rail line because of its potential for future economic development and mass transit.

"I'm not interested in putting trails out in the county at this point," Morgan said at the April work session. "I can't control it, I can't secure it, I can't maintain it at this point."

Mayor Kim Carter said city officials are interested in using the 2-mile portion of the rail line within the city limits for walking and biking trails.

Opponents of the rail line purchase voiced several concerns about the county proposal Monday night, including the cost of the purchase at a time when the county faces a budget shortfall, the future tax burden, the cost to maintain the tracks and the future liability for the county and property owners.

Opponents also said they have no assurance that the railroad wouldn't one day be abandoned and the right of way used as walking and biking trails, which would provide public access - and possibly bring crime - to property that is now rural and secluded.

"We have no problem with bikers, and we have no problem with hikers," said Freddie Neely, who owns property along the line. "It's just the riff-raff that comes with it.

"If you could guarantee me we would never, ever have a biking trail down here, we might find a middle ground," he added.

One woman asked what would happen to the values of properties located along the rail line if it becomes a trail.

"There have been several studies that show values will go down," said Fred Greer, who owns a farm along the line in the Hayston community.

Mary Jane Dixon, whose family has owned land in the Starrsville community for generations, said she has been disturbed by the number of county residents - even those who own property along the rail line - who are not aware of the county's interest in buying the railroad.

"People don't even know this is going on," said Dixon, who owns about a mile of railroad frontage. "Everybody in this county is involved in this because it's going to affect them in the future."

Opponents of the railroad purchase have already secured nearly 400 signatures on petitions opposing the plan and are circulating more petitions that they will present to the Board of Commissioners.

"You've got to contact the people," said Greer. "(The commissioners) count numbers."

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, whose district encompasses a significant portion of the rail line, said he is in favor of preserving the line for future use, but he does not support a possible county purchase of the railroad.

"I've said publicly that I'm opposed to buying it," Ewing said Wednesday. "We don't need a trail, we can't afford a trail. The people in my district are contacting me, and I have told them I agree with you, you just need to make your voices heard."

Ewing noted that the railroad issue has not been discussed in a Board of Commissioners work session or regular meeting since the April 21 joint work session.

Staff reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this report.