Eminent domain case involving Georgia railroad could have far-reaching implications for property rights

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ATLANTA (AP) — A hearing began Monday in an eminent domain dispute that affects one of Georgia's poorest rural areas but could have implications for property rights across the state and country.

At stake is whether a railroad company can legally prohibit construction of a 4.5-mile (7.3-kilometer) rail line that would serve a quarry and possibly other industries.

A hearing officer will require up to three days of testimony before making a recommendation to the five elected members of the Georgia Public Service Commission who will ultimately make a decision.

The line would be built by the Sandersville Railroad, owned by an influential Georgia family. It would provide connectivity to the CSX railroad in Sparta, allowing products to be shipped widely. Sparta is located about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southeast of Atlanta.

People in the rural neighborhood don't want a rail line running through or near their property, partly because they believe it would allow for the expansion of a quarry owned by Heidelberg Materials, a listed German company.

Some residents already dislike the quarry because of the noise, dust and truck traffic it creates. Proponents say if the railroad is built, the quarry will operate its operations further from homes, trains will run fewer trucks on the roads and the railroad will build berms to protect residents.

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But the owners say losing a 200-foot (60-meter) strip of property to the railroad would destroy land they value for its tranquility, hunting, fishing and family heritage.

“Sandersville Railroad does not care about the destruction of my family’s property or our way of life,” Donald Garret Sr., one of the owners, said in a written statement in August. “They only care about their own plans for my property, which don’t serve the public, but just help them grow their business and the quarry’s business.”

Opponents have influential allies, including the Institute for Justice, which wants to use the case to destroy eminent domain: the government's power to legally seize private land while paying fair compensation.

The libertarian-leaning legal group was on the losing side of a landmark 2005 lawsuit that allowed the city of New London, Connecticut, to take land from one private owner and transfer it to another private owner in the name of economic development. The decision sparked a widespread backlash that led to more than 20 states passing laws restricting eminent domain.

Railroads have long had the power of eminent domain, but Georgia law says such land seizures must be for “public use.” Opponents targeted the project, saying it would only benefit the quarry.

“This is not a takeover of the need for private property owners to truly serve public interests and the public at large. Rather, it is a mere transfer of wealth,” Daniel Kochan, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, told opponents.

The Sandersville Railroad says there are other users, including a company located next to the quarry that mixes gravel and asphalt for road paving. Several companies have said they would transport products from the Sandersville area and load them onto the short line and said they want access to CSX, but opponents question whether that deal will go through.

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The case is significant because private companies must condemn private land not only for building railroads, but also for building other facilities such as pipelines and power transmission lines. In particular, there is a need in Georgia and other states to build additional power transmission lines to transmit electricity from new solar and wind energy.

“Railroads in America are private corporations operating in the public interest,” Sandersville Railroad President Ben Tarbutton III testified Monday.

In a previous statement, he said the Institute for Justice is “making transparent efforts to change federal and state constitutional law regarding sentencing.”

Tarbutton is a former chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. His family has owned the railroad for more than a century.

Others who live nearby and are organized as the No Railroad In Our Community Coalition are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Janet Paige Smith, a leader of the group, testified that the railroad would place even greater strain on a neighborhood with many black retirees on fixed incomes.

“We already suffer from traffic, air pollution, noise, debris, trash and more from the Heidelberg Quarry, but this project would make everything worse,” Smith testified.