The no-longer-used Norfolk Southern railroad line that runs through Newton County is now up for public sale.
The approximately 20-mile line from Covington to Newborn will cost $3.5 million plus an additional $450,000 for the half acre of land between Elm and Pace streets, which was once, and technically still is, a proposed site for a future civic and conference center. The total amount of land up for sale is about 115 acres, according to Covington officials.
However, William Butler with Duluth-based JWB Realty Services, who is handling the sale, said that sale price won't include the actual steel rails, which he said have an estimate scrap metal value of $600,000 to $900,000. He said the rail corridor went up public sale about three to four months ago.
The city of Covington and Newton County first considered buying that half acre of downtown land for a civic center, and then at some point negotiations extended to the entire rail line in the county. Those discussions became public in April 2009.
However, both the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners voted against pursuing any purchase, forgoing using more than $1 million in federal grants available at the time.
There have been no public discussions about the rail corridor in 2012. Despite voting down a rail purchase, the city of Covington formed a railroad committee to further explore the benefits and risks of purchasing the rail corridor. The group, which was spearheaded by former Mayor Kim Carter, met in December 2011 and hasn't met again since. Mayor Ronnie Johnston, who attended that initial meeting, said he doesn't expect the group to meet again.
When asked about the status of any city investigations into the rail corridor, Johnston said he wasn't able to discuss any details.
In an email, Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said, "Norfolk Southern is discussing selling all or portions of its rail line that runs through Newton County with various property owners, including the city of Covington. Details of those discussions are proprietary, but I can tell you that we would prefer to sell the line in its entirety, but we will consider selling sections of it to individual property owners."
Butler confirmed that he has had discussions with several people interested in "buying pieces of the rail line."
If the railroad sold portions of the rail corridor to adjacent property owners that would immediately break up the corridor and virtually eliminate any possibility of it ever being used for a pedestrian trail, which was a proposed use that previously drew a lot of support and a lot of vehement opposition, especially from adjacent property owners.
Previously, officials from the town of Newborn and the nonprofit Newton Trails group both expressed interest in purchasing the rail corridor for eventual use as a trail, but neither group had the buying power on its own without outside help, whether public or private.
Other uses of the corridor included to house utility infrastructure, particularly water pipes from the proposed Bear Creek Reservoir; however, that argument never convinced city and county officials. The Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority had studied potential routes for Bear Creek water pipes previously, but didn't come up with a conclusive analysis.
Other possible uses of railroad corridors include power lines, fiber optic cables and even some public road development, said Kelly Pack with the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy group, which has significant experience studying unused and converted railroad corridors.
The overwhelming majority of purchases of unused rail corridors are by local or state governments seeking to build trails.
When asked if any private entities ever buy such corridors, Butler said the best example may be the Atlanta Beltline project, where a private individual bought the railroad and then later sold it to the city of Atlanta at a higher price than what the city could have bought it for itself in the first place.
However, officials who voted against the railroad purchase always said the price was unreasonable, and Joe Hattrup, who runs a nonprofit that buys scrap metal from railroads, agrees. Hattrup is the director of Nevada-based Iron Horse Preservation, a nonprofit group that seeks to convert unused railroad corridors to positive uses instead of leaving the to sit as eyesores and illegal dumping locations.
He said a price of more than $30,000 an acre was unrealistic.
"Those are really high prices for undeveloped land. Who the heck will do that? It's a corridor; it's not a (traditional) piece of land," Hattrup said. "It's ridiculous on its face."
However, he said rail corridors converted into trails are incredibly popular and becoming much more needed as health costs and concerns skyrocket.
Another issue is that Norfolk Southern technically owns the land underneath all of the street crossings in the city and county. While the city has paved over most of those crossings, the railroad still controls the land. This also applies to TV, electricity and other utility companies who have to run lines or pipes across the corridor. The companies pay fees for the right to cross the rail line.
To contact JWB Realty, call (770) 622-3050 or visit jwbrealty.com.