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Posted: June 17, 2014 10:00 p.m.

City joins rail case, OKs budget

The city of Covington is joining a group of landowners seeking payment for the property it owns along the abandoned Norfolk Southern.

The Covington City Council voted 3-2 Monday to join a claim against the federal government seeking payment for rail line property that’s no longer being used for a railroad, but continues to be held indefinitely as a local nonprofit negotiates for its purchase.

City Manager Leigh Anne Knight said she didn’t see any downside to joining the claim, and the upside is that the city could get money for each of the eight parcels of land it owns through which the rail line runs.

Assistant City Attorney Frank Turner Jr. said the city would be entitled to the difference in value of its properties if they had a trail going through them and if they didn’t have a trail going through them.

The rail line hasn’t been used since at least 2010 after losing its last customer, and Norfolk Southern filed to abandon the line in July 2013 believing there was no benefit to maintaining the corridor, which runs 14.9 miles from Covington southeast through Newton County to Newborn and Jasper County.

The Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal agency that oversees railroads, approved the abandonment request effective Aug. 20; however, nothing has been done to the track, because local nonprofit group Newton Trails has been negotiating with Norfolk Southern to try to acquire – either through purchase or donation – the land to use as a public trail.

The railroad had to at least meet with Newton Trails under federal railbanking laws, and while the initial six-month negotiation period ended Feb. 15, the two groups were given a six-month extension by the STB to negotiate a possible agreement, which now carries through Aug. 14.

National property rights attorney Mark “Thor” Hearne said previously it’s common for these types of negotiations to drag on for years, and even if the initial negotiations end, another trail group will frequently step in to engage in lengthy negotiations.

Councilmen Keith Dalton and Chris Smith voted against joining the claim in U.S. claims court; Councilwoman Janet Goodman was absent.

Smith asked if the city does get paid for the land if it gives up any of its land rights for utility easements.
Turner said no. He said the city would still own the land and still be able to run infrastructure under or over the land if it wouldn’t affect the land’s future use as a trail.

City OKs budget

The Council approved Monday a budget with $126.4 million in expenses. The current millage rate of 8.208 is expected to drop depending on the final property tax revenue projections, according to City Manager Leigh Anne Knight.

Council tables parking ordinance

The Council also agreed to table the parking ordinance change it had been considering which would have allowed businesses to place parking in front of their businesses if the speed limit of a road was 45 mph or greater.

The current Covington ordinances require new businesses in the city to place their parking on the side of their building or in the back of the building to both promote walkability, so the front entrance is close and more connected to the sidewalks along the road, and create a more aesthetically pleasing look.

However, the owner of a proposed liquor store on the Covington Bypass Road felt the ordinance wasn’t appropriate for that corridor, because it isn’t pedestrian friendly due to its 55 mph speed limit.

Mayor Ronnie Johnston said the Council’s consensus was to have another work session to discuss the issue.

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