Rail­road cor­ri­dor now up for pub­lic sale

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

The no-longer-used Nor­folk South­ern rail­road line that runs through New­ton County is now up for pub­lic sale.

The ap­prox­i­mately 20mile 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.

The Nor­folk South­ern rail­road cor­ri­dor in New­ton County is now avail­able for sale to the pub­lic at a cost of $3.5 mil­lion, plus an ex­tra $450,000 for a half acre por­tion down­town. It’s un­clear if the city is still pur­su­ing a pur­chase.

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