Millard to property owners: “We messed up”

Published 12:08 pm Friday, February 25, 2011

Millard to railway property owners: ‘We messed up’
by Leah Justice
Saluda Grade Rail Committee member Andy Millard made a public apology last week to railway property owners who recently expressed concern they weren’t consulted on plans for a trail along the railroad.
The Polk County Board of Commissioners heard Monday, Feb. 21 from Millard as well as residents who offered both positive and negative comments about the trail effort.
“I understand that at last month’s meeting several property owners expressed displeasure and rightly so,” Millard said. “That’s our fault. And for those property owners who are here this evening and may not be, I’d like to apologize. We messed up.”
Millard said the committee knew property owners who aren’t on board with the proposal would be an issue and the committee planned to include them, but unfortunately, the committee didn’t get around to it.
“We want to address that and we’ve started to do that already,” said Millard. “We think we may have something here that could be of great benefit to the entire county, including the property owners.”
Millard announced a meeting to be held with the committee and property owners for March 3 at 5:30 p.m. at the Tryon Depot. Millard asked that the meeting be specifically for the committee and property owners to discuss the proposal.
During the county’s last meeting on Feb. 7, commissioners heard from seven property owners from Tryon Township who said commissioners should not have approved a resolution in support of the trail system without speaking to them. Commissioners apologized and said they did not think of how the venture could affect nearby residents.
Some of the same residents spoke last week on issues they have concerning a public trail in their backyard.
Gary Walker said people keep talking about adjacent property owners, but “there’s no adjacent when you own the property to the center line of the tracks.”
“You requested security in this small room,” Walker said, referring to the commissioners’ decision to increase security for county meetings. “Where’s the security going to come from on thousands of acres of the railroad?”
Carroll Edney said he owns 30 acres and has fears about the public using the trail on his property.
“How has Millard got control to ride on my land?” asked Edney. “How come I can’t come down to ya’ll’s property and ride on it? I’m not having raping and people having sex. I don’t want that junk going on in my backyard.”
Jerry Burns said the property owners own the railroad already and pay taxes on the property. Norfolk-Southern has a right of way, Burns said, and asked if that means they can just turn over that right of way to anyone they want.
“What’s the compensation?” Burns asked. “I bought that land. Whether this project goes ahead or not, I would think the expense of it will be tremendous.”
Ed Chapman said the committee is trying to explore possible uses for the rail that hasn’t been used in 10 years and can’t be used currently because it’s washed out.
“We would just ask that you allow us to continue on in discovery as to how and if the Saluda grade can be converted to a rails trail,” Chapman said.
Jeff Byrd also spoke in favor of the effort.
He said a trail could be an economic engine for our community. Byrd asked if the county wants jobs and businesses to thrive. He said the reason is to explore, not to upset the property owners.
The rail committee was formed recently to see if Norfolk-Southern would allow a trail system between Landrum and Saluda for walking, biking and possibly horses. The committee is attempting to get support from local governments prior to officially approaching Norfolk-Southern.
Millard said last week the committee spoke with N.C. Congressman Heath Shuler, who said he thinks it would be a good idea. Millard also said the committee spoke to Norfolk-Southern, who said, “no,” but that doesn’t mean it has to be “no” forever, he said.
“It could be a great thing for the economic welfare of the towns and the county as a whole as well as the idea of the ability to preserve this beautiful and historic corridor for future generations,” Millard said.
Millard also said there’s a possibility the project won’t happen, because Norfolk-Southern might not allow it and costs might be too prohibitive.
“We want to work together to develop something that just about everybody can feel good about,” Millard said. “I ask you to allow us to continue to explore it for a while.”