Does a rail link justify forced land sales in a poor Georgia county?

ATLANTA – Does a Georgia railroad's plan to build a line for private companies qualify as a “public use” that would allow it to force property owners along the line to sell their land?

That question is at the heart of a contentious eminent domain battle that has rocked a small, predominantly black town in eastern Georgia. The outcome could have implications far beyond the rural borders of Hancock County, one of the state's poorest.

The case, which spanned four emotional days of hearings before the Georgia Public Service Commission, concerns a plan by the Sandersville Railroad Company to build a 4.5-mile line near the town of Sparta. The proposed Hanson Spur would connect a nearby quarry to an existing CSX transportation line and could be used by other local companies to transport grain, liquid asphalt and more.

Proponents say it would also allow for the expansion of a quarry and create jobs and opportunities.

Many of the Sparta residents whose properties the railroad wants to acquire have deep ties to their country, some dating back to before the Civil War.

Blaine Smith, a retired Air Force veteran, owns three parcels along the route of the proposed expansion, land that has been in his family for more than a century. Before his grandfather purchased the property in the 1920s, the land was part of a cotton plantation where his great-grandmother was born into slavery.

Smith rejected the railroad's offers to purchase his land. He and members of his extended family, who also own land nearby, were among those who testified against the proposed condemnations, saying the project would benefit only a few businesses and damage their family's legacy.

“I always remember how my grandparents and parents fought hard to get this property and keep it beautiful, productive, clean and intact,” Smith testified Wednesday. “We should be allowed to do the same for our own children.”

Eminent domain is when a government or utility company forces a private property owner to sell some or all of their property for a specific project. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against abuse of eminent domain and requires “just compensation” for seized property. As a public utility, the railroads have the authority to rely on it. However, to exercise this authority, Georgia law requires a court's determination that a project is intended for public use.

In that case, a PSC official who heard the case will make a recommendation to the commission's five elected members, who are expected to vote on the railroad's petition early next year.

Benjamin Tarbutton III, president of the Sandersville Railroad, and his attorneys believe the Hanson Spur meets the threshold for public use.

Tarbutton's family has owned the Sandersville Railroad for more than 100 years and he is a past chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and a past chairman of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.

“The Hanson Spur will provide new channels of commerce for our customers and the region and is necessary to properly serve our business, which already serves a public purpose,” Tarbutton testified.

Cale Veal, an executive at Veal Farms Transload and Revive Milling in Washington County, is among those who said he plans to use the spur. He said the connection will help him tap into important markets that are uneconomical to reach today.

In hearings and public relations, the Sandersville Railroad called the Hanson Spur an economic boon. Hancock County, about 85 miles southeast of downtown Atlanta, has been among the poorest in Georgia for decades.

Hancock's median household income is about half the statewide average, and more than 30% of the county's population lives below the poverty line. While Georgia's population has grown in recent years, Hancock has lost more than a tenth of its population since 2010.

In an interview, Tarbutton said the push, along with a planned expansion of the Hanson Quarry by its owner, German multinational Heidelberg Materials, would be “the largest private investment ever in the county.”

The railroad says the line will increase tax revenue, pump $1.5 million annually into the local economy and create 12 new jobs with an average salary of $90,000.

“The ripple effect of jobs and the multiplier effect will be really big,” Tarbutton said.

Neighbors are skeptical.

Janet Smith leads the No Railroad in Our Community Coalition, which intervened in the case and is represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Smith said she and other longtime residents haven't felt the benefits of nearby industry — two quarries, an asphalt plant and the existing CSX line.

“If anything, we are in worse shape than ever before,” she said. “How does (Sandersville) think taking another step will help us?”

They also fear the spur will devalue properties, create unbearable noise and create safety problems for many who use their land for hunting and fishing.

Tarbutton said those concerns were overblown.

He stated that on weekdays the train would operate one return trip per day during daylight hours only. It will travel less than 20 miles per hour and carry only rocks, wood chips, liquid asphalt and agricultural products, with no plans to transport hazardous materials, he said. Tarbutton and others also claim it would reduce heavy truck traffic and benefit the environment.

“Whether they use their property for recreation or timber harvesting … whatever they do, they will be able to continue to do it,” Tarbutton said, adding that railroad crossings will be built along the spur.

The PSC's decision in this case will be closely monitored.

The decision could set a precedent for whether private railroads are a public good if they serve multiple customers and create jobs, especially in areas like Hancock County. As utilities plan to integrate more renewable energy into their systems, new transmission lines will be needed to power it, meaning more serious domain battles could lie ahead.

Sumey Orr, an Atlanta commercial real estate attorney at the Hartman Simons law firm who is not involved in the case, called it a “Catch-22” situation because eminent domain cannot be used exclusively for economic development, but railroads can Such a case can be public institutions.

Tanya Washington, a law professor at Georgia State University who is also not involved in the case, said the PSC could remove protections for property owners.

“If the public purpose can be secondary, then this exclusion of economic development from the use of eminent domain in Georgia is truly toothless,” Washington said.

In his closing argument, William Maurer, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice, which represents 15 property owners, said the railroad had not demonstrated that the line was more than an economic development project.

“Any benefit to the public here is a complete excuse to enrich these companies at the expense of my customers’ property,” Maurer said.

An attorney for the Sandersville Railroad argued that questions about the project's feasibility, potential noise and more were irrelevant to the central issue of public use.

“This is a binary test: Does it serve a legitimate public purpose under the statutes, which we have reviewed very carefully and explained here?” said attorney Robert Highsmith.

A landmark Supreme Court case in 2005 changed federal eminent domain law, prompting Georgia and several other states to change their condemnation rules in response.

By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that the Connecticut city could take land from a private owner as part of an economic development plan. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal group, represented the losing party in the case.

In 2006, Georgia amended its eminent domain law and expressly prohibited condemnation of property solely for the purpose of economic development. Dozens of other states have passed similar laws.

In 2017, Georgia relaxed its eminent domain laws to allow local governments to seize abandoned property for economic development. The eminent domain has been used as part of several high-profile developments, including the Atlanta Beltline, parking lots for the Sandy Springs City Center, and road infrastructure projects around Truist Park.

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