Expropriation proceedings in connection with the railway company in Georgia could have far-reaching consequences for property rights

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

The issue is whether a railway company can lawfully expropriate land to build a 7.3-kilometre railway line that would serve a quarry and possibly other industries.

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

The line would be built by the Sandersville Railroad, owned by an influential Georgia family. It would connect to the CSX railroad at Sparta, allowing long-distance shipping of goods. Sparta is about 84 miles southeast of Atlanta.

People in the rural area do not want a railway line to run through or near their property, partly because they fear it would allow the expansion of a quarry owned by the listed German group Heidelberg Materials.

Some residents already oppose the quarry because of the noise, dust and truck traffic it creates. Supporters say if the railroad is built, the quarry will move its operations farther from homes, trains will reduce truck traffic on the roads and the railroad will build embankments to shield residents.

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But the owners say losing a 60-metre-wide strip of land to the railway would destroy land they love for its peace and quiet, its hunting and fishing opportunities and its family heritage.

“Sandersville Railroad does not care about destroying 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 do not serve the public but only help them grow their business and the quarry's business.”

The opponents have influential allies, including the Institute for Justice, which is using the case to undermine the right of expropriation, which allows the government to legally seize private land and pay appropriate compensation for it.

The libertarian-leaning legal group was on the losing side in a landmark 2005 case 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 response, including the passage of laws restricting the right of expropriation in more than 20 states.

Railroads have long had the right to expropriate land, but Georgia law requires such land expropriations to be for “public purposes.” Opponents of the project criticized it on the grounds that it would only benefit the quarry.

“This is not a necessary expropriation of private property that truly serves the public interest and the common good. Rather, it is a naked transfer of wealth,” said Daniel Kochan, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, for the opponents.

According to the Sandersville Railroad, there are other users, including a company located at the same site as the quarry that mixes gravel and asphalt for road paving. Several companies have said they would truck Sandersville-area products onto the branch line because they want access to CSX, but opponents doubt that deal will go through.

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

“The railroads in America are private companies operating in the public interest,” Ben Tarbutton III, president of the Sandersville Railroad, said Monday.

In an earlier statement, he said the Institute for Justice was “working transparently to change federal and state constitutional law regarding expropriations.”

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

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

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