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Posted: October 19, 2013 6:58 p.m.

Trails group still negotiating with rail line

Nonprofit Newton Trails is still in discussions with Norfolk Southern to see if it can find a way to keep a 14.9-mile rail corridor intact for use as a trail.

While the federal Surface Transportation Board gave Norfolk Southern the right to abandon its no-longer-used rail line in Newton County on Aug. 20, Norfolk Southern had earlier agreed to enter into negotiations with the nonprofit group to see if an agreement could be reached to sell or donate the corridor, or allow it to be used as a trail for the foreseeable future without the railroad company giving up ownership.

Newton Trails filed a request July 26 to negotiate with Norfolk Southern for interim trail use, often referred to as "railbanking." As of Aug. 19, the two parties had 180 days to reach an agreement.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rick Harris said earlier this week the company planned to remove the rails and crossties, as well as the four bridges along the line; however, Newton Trails Chairman Florian Pohl clarified Friday that the bridges won’t be removed unless no agreement is reached within 180 days, because the bridges would need to remain intact to allow a continued trail. The rails and ties can be pulled up any time.

Pohl said there are multiple possibilities under railbanking, including:

• Newton Trails could purchase the corridor outright.

• Norfolk Southern could donate the corridor to Newton Trails.

• Norfolk Southern could retain ownership of the corridor but allow Newton Trails to use it as a trail, in which case Newton Trails would be responsible for maintenance.

Under any of these scenarios, the corridor would technically remain a transportation corridor and could potentially be converted back into a rail line should a legitimate future need arise. Pohl said under this scenario, the railroad company wanting to rebuild the rail line would have to compensate the group owning the rail line; he said the process would go through the Surface Transportation Board.

Norfolk Southern can still sell the property outright to Newton Trails or another entity without going through railbanking. Such a sale would have to happen after the abandonment of the line had been completed by Norfolk Southern, a process that abolishes the rail corridor and turns it into pure land.

"They do seem to be willing to let go of the land. They want money for it, but it’s our hope that one way or another can be found to keep the corridor open as a contiguous corridor for public use," Pohl said Friday.

Norfolk Southern did not have to accept Newton Trails initial request to negotiate for interim trail use, Pohl said.

However, Pohl said little progress has been made since August, but said these processes are commonly slow moving, because railroad companies are large corporations for which real estate transactions are a small part of the operation.

"The negotiation could be marginal at best, but at least they did not wipe (our request) off the table right away," Pohl said.

The rail line went up for sale in late 2012 at a cost of $3.95 million; neither the real estate company marketing the property nor Norfolk Southern’s spokesman responded to questions about whether that  price had changed.

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