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Railroad: Spur has been carefully planned to mitigate residents impact

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(The Center Square) — A Georgia railroad says a proposed rail spur has been planned to mitigate its impact on residents, but a group fighting the effort is doubling down on claims the project will only benefit a few.

Last week, a Georgia Public Service Commission hearing officer ruled the Sandersville Railroad can take private land from several Sparta property owners, saying its proposed rail spur — the Hanson Spur — “serves a legitimate public purpose.”

The Sandersville Railroad, a Class III short-line railroad, petitioned the PSC on March 8, 2023, to condemn land for a proposed 4.5-mile-long spur. It subsequently moved to condemn additional land.

“Sandersville Railroad carefully planned the Hanson Spur project to have the least possible impact on local residents and landowners,” Sandersville Railroad President Ben Tarbutton said in a statement provided to The Center Square on Tuesday. “By implementing a thoughtful schedule, noise-reduction measures, and strategic landscaping, the Hanson Spur will balance the well-being and quality of life of the Shoals Road and Sparta communities while creating jobs and positive economic impact.”

The railroad’s existing tracks are about 25 miles from Sparta, and the spur would connect a rock quarry southeast of the city with a CSX Transportation rail line but not existing Sandersville Railroad tracks.

“It is critical to Georgia’s future economic health that these entities have clear legal rights to deliver vital economic infrastructure,” Tarbutton said. “The Hanson Spur will open new channels of trade for Middle Georgia businesses and is expected to yield over $1.5 million in annual economic benefit, supporting the city and county governments through new jobs and additional property tax revenue with limited impact on its neighbors.

“The users of the Spur – Heidelberg Materials, Pittman Construction, Veal Farms Transload, Revive Millings and Southern Chips – and additional future users will further benefit Middle Georgia, providing opportunities for new access to markets for local businesses, farmers, loggers, and timberland owners,” Tarbutton added.

Tarbutton lauded the PSC decision and called on property owners opposing the project “to return to the negotiation table so that we might work together to bring the benefits of the Hanson Spur project to our communities without protracted litigation.”

The Institute for Justice, which represents some area property owners, said it would file an appeal, asking the entire PSC to review the ruling.

In a statement to The Center Square, IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer said that anyone who examines the case will realize the railroad’s “attempt to take our clients’ land does not serve a public interest, but rather benefits a multinational corporation running a rock quarry and, at best, a select few other private companies.

“This railroad is nothing but taking property from our clients — property that has been in their families for generations — so private companies can make money,” Maurer said. “That is wrong and it is what Georgia law explicitly forbids. The railroad says it wants the property owners to ‘come to the negotiating table,’ but there is no negotiating table when the railroad can always use the government to get what it wants. Forcing someone to give up what is theirs is not a negotiation.

“We are hopeful the full Commission will see this as what it is — a naked attempt to force people to give up their property, heritage, and peace of mind so a handful of private companies can earn money, and something that would be bad law, bad public policy, and harmful to the public,” Maurer added.