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Covington proceeds with caution on railroad talks

Photo by Daniel Kemp

Photo by Daniel Kemp

City of Covington officials agreed over the weekend to let the city attorney get more information from Norfolk Southern regarding purchase of a rail line, but they also want to be sure grant money is still available and know what the county's involvement will be.

The council voted a year ago not to pursue the matter, but during a strategic planning meeting Saturday at the Georgia Wildlife Federation, Mayor Kim Carter asked them to "forget everything we've talked about on this topic" and be more open minded.

Carter asked for permission to respond to a recent e-mail from Norfolk Southern giving a deadline of March 31 to commit to the purchase. Norfolk Southern has indicated it wants to sell to a government entity, Carter said. But so far, Covington and Newton County officials haven't been willing to commit.

Carter asked for permission to contact the railroad and set up a meeting with its representatives and other local government leaders to get more information. For $1,000 earnest money, Carter said the railroad is willing to provide any information requested, including what has been transported on the rail line and, "If you don't like what you see, we're done, but at least you'd know what you're dealing with." Carter added that it should be the county that puts up the money, but the city does need a seat at the table.

"It's been an emotionally charged topic in our community. I think we owe it to our constituents ... to at least do our homework," she said.

Councilmen Keith Dalton and Chris Smith said they'd agree to talks with the railroad only if the city's legal counsel is involved. Smith said county officials need to take the lead on the project, since the grants were awarded to the county.

Newton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan said last week commissioners have not discussed the issue.

"We have not had discussions regarding the (rail line); we are totally focusing on SPLOST at this time. I still have not gathered enough facts to provide enough information to determine if we have an interest or not," she said via e-mail.

While the purchase of the rail line has always been presented as a county project, about 5 miles lies within city limits, and the city has a vested interest in its use, Carter said. Also, it was former Mayor Sam Ramsey who initiated contact with the railroad about purchasing a small portion at Pace and Elm streets for the civic center project. The railroad then came back and offered about 15 miles. Two grants totaling more than $1 million were awarded to the county from the federal government; one of those was earmarked for conversion of the rails to a multi-use trail.

Dalton said the city's legal counsel, not the mayor, should be the one who handles the discussion. He also said the city should not be involved with purchasing any property outside city limits and should only discuss use of the 5 miles within the city.

Carter said use of the property could be determined in the future. A multi-use trail is only one possible use. Officials are now saying the property could be valuable by saving local government money when it comes time to purchase right of way for water lines running to Bear Creek Reservoir.

Councilman Mike Whatley, also a member of the Water and Sewerage Authority, said the county would have to buy more than 180 easements for that project.

"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out how much money that would save," he said. Whatley added that if the sole use of the property was for trails, "I would drop it like a hand grenade," but added that new information regarding the benefit from a utilities standpoint has made him reconsider.

"I wouldn't have a problem with us looking at buying the 5 miles that are inside the city at some point strictly for a utility basis, for rights of way. I do have an issue with us trying to buy the whole 15 miles when two-thirds of it is in Newton County," Smith said during a follow-up interview Monday.

The city will also need to cross the property for utilities and will have to pay a price set by whatever entity owns it; Human Resources Director Ronnie Cowan said he's seen the cost for an easement run as high as $25,000 for property appraised at just over $2,000. If the city doesn't control the property, officials might as well set aside a contingency fund for future expenses, including litigation, he said.

Councilwomen Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin said they have no problem getting more information, but Williams worried that, "Sometimes, sitting in a room can imply commitment."

The strategic plan facilitator, Frank Foster, urged officials to think about the citizens before rushing into a decision.

"If you're making a decision without all the information, I'm not sure that's the right way to answer the questions the citizens have," he said, adding that elected officials need to be able to defend their decisions. "Sometimes a quick 'no' or a quick 'yes' could cost a lot of money."