City votes no on railroad

Photo by Heather Meadows

Photo by Heather Meadows

During an executive session Monday night, the Covington City Council decided not to authorize Mayor Kim Carter to send a letter of intent to Norfolk Southern railroad related to the much-debated purchase of a rail line.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman made the motion to authorize the letter, with Mike Whatley making the second. The motion failed by a vote of 4 to 2, with Keith Dalton, Ocie Franklin, Chris Smith and Hawnethia Williams opposed.

The vote took place in closed session. City Attorney Ed Crudup cited a section of Georgia law that exempts meetings discussing the future acquisition of real estate from the Open Meetings Act. Because the council voted not to move forward, the minutes of the session are releasable under the Open Records Act, Crudup said. Otherwise, they could have been withheld from the public until the deal was completed, he said.

Carter reported in February that Norfolk Southern sent her an email setting a deadline of March 31 for local officials to make a commitment. Norfolk Southern first offered the rail line two years ago.

The Covington City Council voted a year ago not to pursue purchase of the rail line, but after Carter received the email, they agreed discussions could take place to get more information. The railroad extended the deadline at that point.

The rail line is approximately 15 miles, running from Covington to just outside Newborn. About two-thirds lies 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.

Carter has said use of the property could be determined in the future. A multi-use trail is only one possible use.

The purchase of the rail line has been hotly disputed in the community. Advocates say a trail would provided needed recreation and draw tourists. Even if a trail is not constructed, it's better to have the property in the hands of the public versus a private entity, they argue.

Opponents say maintenance costs of the trail could trump any revenue it brings in and the project is unnecessary in these economic times and will bring in crime.