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County nixes purchase of rail line

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- The Newton County Board of Commissioners reached a decision Tuesday night not to pursue the purchase of the unused Norfolk Southern rail line in Newton County.

The vote came following a closed session discussion of the proposed purchase. In open session Commissioner Mort Ewing made a motion not to purchase the rail line property and to direct the chairman "to decline these offers and expend no further county funds on this matter."

His motion was seconded by Commissioner Tim Fleming, with Commissioner J.C. Henderson voting in favor and Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims opposed. Their opposition was based on the possibility that the rail line property could one day be used for infrastructure easements.

Ewing's motion addressed Norfolk Southern's offer to "sell approximately 12 miles of rail line from the city of Covington limits to the Jasper County line for $1.25 million, and to sell 0.51 acres of rail line between Elm Street and Pace Street for $450,000 and ... 45.5 acres from Porterdale to the city of Covington for $1.25 million.... "

The total purchase price for all rail line parcels offered for sale is $2.95 million.

The total rail line in Newton County is about 15 miles long, running from Porterdale to just outside Newborn. About two-thirds of the line is in unincorporated Newton County.

The railroad initially offered a purchase price of $1.8 million. Two grants totaling more than $1 million were awarded to the county from the federal government for purchase of the rail line; one of those was earmarked for conversion of the rails to a multi-use trail.

Ewing said Chairman Kathy Morgan presented a plan to commissioners Tuesday night in which the county could purchase the railroad using water resource funds in addition to the grant funds. Ewing said Wednesday he opposed that plan on several points.

"No. 1, the water resource fund was not designed to be used to buy a railroad or to buy other properties. It is a water fund to be used for water purposes," Ewing said. "No. 2, the county is in what I call a severe financial crisis, so we don't have any surplus money to spend at the present time. We are struggling to balance a budget to provide basic services. No. 3, in my view, what the railroad offered us was a highly inflated number. So, bottom line, it did not make economic sense for the county to expend further resources, whether it be staff time, county money or whatever."

Ewing said he phrased the motion the way he did in the hope it would prevent the matter from coming before the board again.

"I just was tired of fooling with it," he said. "We've got too many important issues we need to be working on for us to be dilly-dallying around trying to buy something we can't afford and don't have any use for."

Schulz said Wednesday that she was not interested in purchasing the rail line for recreational purposes. Rather, she said, she hoped to be able to negotiate a better price with Norfolk Southern in order to preserve the rail line for future infrastructure easements.

"I felt like the purchase price that Norfolk Southern had proposed was outrageously expensive -- almost double what they had said before," Schulz said Wednesday. "But I felt like that was their first offer. My concern, and Mr. Sims and I shared this concern, was in terms of looking out for the county's long-term needs, especially when it relates to running water lines for the Bear Creek Reservoir. At some point we are going to have to buy easements to run those water lines."

Schulz said she had hoped that the BOC would be able to have County Attorney Tommy Craig go back to the railroad to negotiate a better price.

"If you look at what it is going to cost us to buy those easements (for the reservoir water lines), it would be prudent for us to go ahead and preserve that corridor that is already there," Schulz said.

The vote to end any discussion with Norfolk Southern ties the county's hands, Schulz added.

"It's a missed opportunity and we may end up paying a whole heck of a lot more for acquiring right of way for infrastructure when it comes to that water line," she said.

The Covington City Council voted in May not to authorize Mayor Kim Carter to send a letter of intent to Norfolk Southern related to the purchase of the rail line within the city limits. A motion to authorize the letter failed by a vote of 4-2.

This was the second time a city effort to pursue the purchase failed. The council voted more than a year ago not to pursue the purchase, but after Carter received an email from the railroad setting a deadline for local officials to make a commitment, the council agreed to enter discussions with the railroad to get more information.

Staff reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this report.