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Posted: May 24, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Rails-to-Trails idea meets local opposition

Residents voice concerns at 3 different meetings

 The topic of the Norfolk Southern railroad in Newton County is gaining momentum even as the line itself falls into disuse. In the past week, the topic of purchasing the railroad has been discussed at three different meetings: District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz’s fireside chat on Thursday, the public comments segment of Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting and the Monday railroad
community meeting at Starrsville United Methodist Church.

Residents are becoming more involved and making their thoughts known because of the potential ramifications of the railroad, both negative and positive. Discussions revolve around the potential cost versus the potential benefit. However, the discussions aren’t leading to many answers, because the county, which is investigating the purchase, doesn’t have the answers yet.

At Thursday’s fireside chat, Schulz brought in various experts to discuss the future of transportation in the county, focusing on improved streets and more sidewalks, bikepaths and trails and car and van pools and bus service. However, Schulz also brought up the railroad because of the intense discussion it has sparked.

Chairman Morgan spoke during the public question and answer section of the meeting and updated the county’s current position. She said the county is still in the fact gathering process and she needs several more questions to be answered before she would be able to make a presentation or recommendation to the board.

She rattled off a list of unresolved questions, including: What is the county buying exactly? What is the purpose? What is the railroads assets’ real worth? What is the liability of purchasing the railroad? What would be the cost to maintain the railroad?

Even though the county was originally only considering purchasing the .51 acres needed for the civic center parking lot, Morgan said it would be irresponsible not to fully explore Norfolk Southern’s offer to sell their 12-mile line.

She said County Attorney Tommy Craig is seeking answers to her questions and attorney Karl Morell, a railroad specialist based in Washington, D.C. that was hired by the county, is providing counsel.

However, many commissioners and residents believe it’s irresponsible for the county to be considering this purchase because the county should be focusing on cutting out all unnecessary expenses. With the current set of facts, District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, whose district contains much of the Norfolk Southern railroad, said he is opposed to pursuing the railroad purchase further.

"We don’t have money to buy the railroad, and I don’t think we need to buy the railroad," Ewing said Thursday. "We have more questions than we have answers. For example, what is the price? Will they sell it for half price? Even if they gave it to us we wouldn’t have money to establish a trail. In the middle of a budget crisis, we don’t need to waste time talking about the railroad. We need to spend time focusing on the budget."

The cost of creating, maintaining and protecting pedestrian trails has been one of the most common arguments against purchasing the railroad. Morgan has agreed previously that a trail system in the county is not a good idea, because the sheriff’s department doesn’t have the personnel to police a trail system.

The nearly $1.1 million in federal funding from U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA), received through 2008 and 2009 earmarks was designated to purchase railroad rights-of-way for trails. However, County Special Projects Coordinator Cheryl Delk said the main purpose of the funding is to preserve corridors, whether for wildlife, trails, trolleys or anything else. Whether the $1.1 million can be used exclusively to purchase railroads without building trails is not known. According to Andrea Gray, an attorney in Tommy Craig’s office, the local city/county match for the $1.1 million is $237,640.

A group of county residents led by Mary Jane Dixon, Fred and Peggy Greer, Mike Lassiter, Buddy Morgan and Freddie Neely has been speaking against the railroad purchase at the past two BOC meetings. The group doesn’t want the county to waste money on purchasing the railroad when the county has more pressing needs. They are concerned ownership of the rail would be a liability for the county with or without trails. And if any trails are put in place they believe the cost to build, maintain and protect the trails turn the railroad into a money pit.

The group and more than 50 other residents met at Starrsville United Methodist Church Monday to discuss the railroad purchase and gather more facts. Hobby Stripling, a representative from Marshall’s office was invited to speak and answer questions. Fred Greer said he wanted Marshall to know that there was strong county opposition to the trails.

Stripling said the federal money had to be used for its designated purpose or it would be lost.

Ed Cloud, the owner of Oconee Metal Recovery at 9193 Washington Street, said his scrap metal recycling business would be interrupted by any development of the little used railroad because the railroad runs right through the middle of his property. As it is now, Cloud can move vehicles and materials back and forth across the rails, but a trail or other development could hinder his and other people’s businesses.

One of the biggest points of contention between opponents and proponents is whether trails would increase crime and lower property taxes.

Cycling and trail activist Maurice Carter said that trails in urban and rural areas raise property values and do not increase crime rates. He provided Web links to studies done by the cities of Seattle and Omaha, Neb. which stated these findings. He also provided a PDF of a study conducted by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy which stated that crime rates did not increase in rural areas with trails.

Neely referred to the high-profile murder case on the Silver Comet Trail in Paulding County and said that even one murder is too many.

Morgan has repeatedly said she would prefer to buy the railroad as a railroad and keep it in county hands for potential future use. She said she is looking at the value of using that rail 10 to 20 years down the road. She said Thursday that owning the Norfolk Southern line could also help keep CSX’s prices down via competition which would help attract local business.

In any case, Morgan and Schulz said the still is still gathering information and probably won’t make a decision for another month or more. Stripling said the federal money would be lost if not used within three years.

Neely said the group of county residents did not have another meeting planned for the immediate future, but they will continue to make their thoughts and feelings known to the BOC.

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