Georgia’s rural community is fighting the railroads that are trying to take their land

This story was originally published by Capital B.

After a years-long legal battle with a railroad company over their land, landowners in a rural, predominantly black town in Georgia are being forced to sell their homes.

In an initial decision on April 1, a Georgia Public Service Commission official approved a proposed rail expansion in Sparta. Several property owners had denied the land to Sandersville Railroad Co. to sell. In March, the century-old, white-owned private railroad company attempted to acquire the property through eminent domain — a process that allows the government to take private land for public use. . However, property owners must receive fair compensation.

The company has petitioned the state Public Service Commission to condemn the parcels owned by 18 property owners along Shoals Road. The railroad planned to build a 4.5-mile (7.2-kilometer) railroad that would connect the Hanson Quarry, a Heidelberg Materials rock mine, to a mainline railroad along a nearby highway. The proposed project would create 20 temporary construction jobs, a dozen permanent jobs, averaging $90,000 per year in salary and benefits, and would bring more than $1.5 million annually to Hancock County.

However, residents of the town of 2,000 told Capital B in September that they did not want to sell their land or feared the possible damage to their homes by the train. Many others say they never received notice from the rail company and only learned about the project at a local community meeting last year.

The Georgia Public Service Commission held a three-day hearing in late November. The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, and residents argued that the rail project is an abuse of eminent domain that does not serve the public or benefit the community.

Benjamin Tarbutton III, president of Sandersville Railroad, testified that economic development is important to him and that “the American dream starts with a job.” He believes his rail project will create jobs, which is why he considers the project a public use.

Bill Maurer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who represents property owners in Sparta, later asked Tarbutton: “Do you think part of the American dream is owning property without it being put to use by others?”

“I stand by my first comment,” Tarbutton said.

During Sparta native Marvin Smith’s testimony, he also mentioned the American dream. Smith, a military veteran, owns property passed down to him from his father. His grandfather, James Blaine Smith, acquired 600 acres in 1926.

“The American dream says that if you play by the rules and work hard, justice will prevail and you will be rewarded,” he said. “It never occurred to me…after 43 years of playing by the rules…I might find myself in a position where my land could be taken over through eminent domain.”

Despite residents’ pleas, Public Service Commission hearing officer Thomas K. Bond ruled in favor of the railroad company.

“I therefore believe and conclude that the Sandersville Railroad’s proposed condemnation serves a legitimate public purpose and is necessary for the proper accommodation of the company’s operations,” Bond wrote. “The Sandersville Railroad petition, as amended, is granted.”

The fight is not over and the initial decision is not the final word in the matter. Property owners, represented by the Institute for Justice, will challenge the ruling. They have thirty days to appeal.

Efforts have been made to make it more difficult for companies to use eminent domain following the widely cited case of Kelo v. City of New London. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government seizure of private property to allow private development for economic benefit is considered a public use. Since then, at least 44 states have passed laws to reduce abuse.

“When the U.S. Supreme Court issued the unpopular and widely condemned Kelo Following this decision, the Georgia General Assembly implemented strict reforms to ensure that something like this would not happen in the state. Today’s original decision effectively undoes that work,” Maurer said in a statement. “We will fight to ensure that the people of the state of Georgia are protected from this type of abuse at every possible stage.”