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Posted: July 11, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Railroad purchase debate still rages

Newborn, trail foundation still pushing for purchase

Brittany Thomas/

Off the rails: The possibility for the county to purchase the old Norfolk Southern railroad has been hotly contested for months.

Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan continues to spearhead efforts to acquire the local Norfolk Southern rail line, and is in the process of forming a partnership with the Newton County Trail Path Foundation to facilitate an acquisition.

On Monday, the Newborn Town Council is expected to vote on a memorandum of understanding between Newborn, the Path Foundation and any other interested entities, at its 7 p.m. meeting. Newborn and Oxford are the only two cities who have formally expressed interest in a railroad purchase, while Porterdale, Mansfield and the county remain undecided. In April, the Covington city council voted to end all discussion of a purchase.

"I will ask (the council) to authorize me to go ahead with the MOU at no cost to the town. No matter who is interested, I want them to be able to sign it," Sheridan said in a phone interview Saturday.

Sheridan has said previously that Newborn doesn’t have money to purchase the railroad at the stated $1.8 million asking price, even if the railroad-related federal grants originally awarded to the county were transferred to the town. However, if this public-private partnership is formed, it will give local officials more options to bridge any monetary gap.

According to a draft of the MOU, given out to the county and all municipalities at Friday’s quarterly 
mayor’s meeting, the Path Foundation would be able to use its non-profit status to solicit donations. There has been significant community discussion about turning the railroad corridor into a multi-use path. The recession has made all governments wary of spending money on any non-critical purchases, so the MOU states that no party would be required to fund any expenses.

Path Foundation Chairman Maurice Carter confirmed Saturday that his organization is interested, but he will still have to get the approval of his board of directors. He expects to call a board meeting within the next week or two. He said a public-private partnership has been talked about for several months, because that formula led to the creation of the Silver Comet, Arabia Mountain and other trails. The Path Foundation will be able to elicit donations from individuals and corporations.

"Those of us who believe this makes good sense and there is strong public support, feel this is the best chance to move forward," Carter said.

Officials from U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall’s office have already stated that the two grants he secured for Newton County totaling more than $1 million can be switched to another interested party. By forming a public-private partnership the entities would increase their funding options.

However, at a June 17 meeting between local elected officials and Norfolk representatives, Chairman Kathy Morgan said the $500,000 of SPLOST money originally approved for the civic center project could only be used to purchase the railroad if approved by the board of commissioners.

The MOU also states that Sheridan would continue to be the coordinator of the purchase efforts and the liaison between the parties and Norfolk Southern. It’s a natural fit since Sheridan has already facilitated two previous meetings with the railroad company.

Sheridan said according to maps he’s examined the railroad corridor represents around 200 acres of land from Porterdale into Newborn. He’s pursuing the project because he believes it will be an asset and 75 percent of the communication he receives from residents is supportive. Sheridan said previously he hopes Newborn would become a trail head for a multi-use trail connecting the county’s cities.

Morgan said Friday the county has spent far more money purchasing far less land around busy intersections in the western part of the county. She believes not purchasing the valuable connecting corridor now when it’s fairly inexpensive would prove to be a disservice to the residents.

Though a company spokesperson previously said otherwise, Norfolk Southern does intend to abandon the rail line at some point if it’s not sold, said Steven G. Portnell, director of real estate at their Atlanta office, at the June 17 meeting.

Portnell said the line has very strong fee simple ownership along the majority of the line, with the exception of a few properties in Covington and Porterdale. Fee simple means the railroad owns the actual property, as opposed to simply having an easement, essentially a lease on the property, which could disappear if the railroad disappeared. He said most of the land for the rail line was acquired in 1890.

To this point, Newton County and Norfolk Southern have been discussing a 14.9 mile portion of the railroad up to Rose Acres Feed, a business north of Newborn which recently went out of business. Sheridan wants to extend the negotiations to purchase the railroad portion in Newborn. Portnell and J. William Butler, with JWB Realty Services, said Norfolk Southern would have to amend its lease with Squaw Creek Southern Railroad to exclude this portion, before it could be added to negotiations.

Covington Mayor Kim Carter said at the time that the Newborn and the other entities involved still had time to work out a deal, because the original grants wouldn’t expire for a while. She said the first grant awarded by Marshall had about 20 months remaining, while the second grant still had three years.

Sheridan has received an electronic copy of a contract from Norfolk Southern since that meeting, but he said Friday it’s a fairly standard document. If his continued efforts prove to be successful, he might be able to sign that document in the not too distant future.

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