The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 not to purchase the out-of-use Norfolk Southern railroad corridor Tuesday night, joining the Covington City Council in bowing out of the controversial discussion.
With the two largest governments out of the discussion, that leaves the Newton Trails-Path Foundation and towns of Mansfield and Newborn as the remaining interested parties.
None of those entities has cash for a purchase, but both are continuing to explore possibilities, said Newborn Mayor Roger Sheridan and Newton Trails Chairman Maurice Carter. Remaining options include partnering with private businesses to purchase the corridor or purchasing only the sections in Mansfield and Newborn. Finally, if Norfolk Southern followed through on abandonment, the trail foundation could pursue railbanking, a process by which a corridor can be turned into a multi-use path.
Norfolk Southern offered Newton County three parcels of corridor totaling 150.76 acres for a total price of $2.95 million:
- .51 acres between Elm and Pace streets for $450,000
- 104.75 acres from Covington to the Jasper County line for $1.25 million
- 45.5 acres between Porterdale and Covington city limits for $1.25 million
Following a closed session discussion, the board returned into open session Tuesday where Commissioner Mort Ewing made a motion to "direct the chairman to decline these offers and expend no further county funds on this matter." He was joined by commissioners Tim Fleming and J.C. Henderson.
The county has access to $1.08 million in federal grants for the purchase, but the remainder would have been paid out of the county's water fund, Ewing said.
"No. 1, the water fund was never designed to buy a railroad. No. 2, the price was extremely high compared to what land is selling for in Newton County. And No. 3 we didn't have any need for it," Ewing said Wednesday.
Commissioners Nancy Schulz and Lanier Sims voted against Ewing's motion. Schulz and Sims said Wednesday that they didn't agree with the purchase price but wanted to make a counter offer.
"I felt as though the offer from Norfolk Southern was outrageously expensive, but we also felt that this was their first offer. We wanted to give (County Attorney Tommy) Craig the authority to give a counter offer, so that we could look at this corridor for right of way for future infrastructure," Schulz said. "We perceive it to be a very valuable corridor for future infrastructure."
Schulz and Sims said the corridor's only value to them was its potential to house water pipelines from Bear Creek Reservoir, which is planned to be built in the southern portion of the county.
When the reservoir is built, the water authority will eventually have to run pipes from the reservoir north to Covington and other parts of the county. This pipe will cross numerous properties and require easements from each, at an estimated cost of $1,950 per easement, according to the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.
According to previous research by the authority, using the rail corridor would require 30 easements to be purchased, while using a path along a Georgia Power right-of-way would require 55 easements. A third option would require 181 easements.
The authority could not make a final determination because any of the paths could be blocked by rocks, difficult river crossings or other factors. The railroad corridor path would be 1.5 miles longer than the Georgia Power one, which would carry additional costs for actual piping.
Neither commissioner was interested in the using the corridor for recreation.
"Before Mr. Roy Varner died, he came to me three times on three occasions and said you need to preserve that corridor, because it's important for the long-term vision of this county," Schulz said Wednesday, noting that Varner was similarly only interested in the corridor to house water lines. "Because of his track record in visionary leadership, that left an impression."
The city of Covington has twice voted not to purchase the 5.92-mile portion of the rail corridor in the city limits, last turning down a $1.2 million offer on May 16.