County manager: Rails to trails ‘moot point’

Published 3:36 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Motion for Polk to withdraw support fails
Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson said the Rails to Trails proposal is a moot point, because a Norfolk Southern official told him the company will not give up the railway for a trail system.
Whitson told commissioners about his conversation with Norfolk Southern during  the county’s March 7 meeting held at the Green Creek Fire Department.
“[The Norfolk Southern official] was very familiar with the Saluda Grade,” Whitson said. “He made it absolutely clear that Norfolk Southern is not going to turn over this line or any other line anytime soon. This one is still an active line.
“Based on this, I think anything with rails to trails is a moot point.”
Responding to property owners who’ve expressed concern over issues such as costs to the county and eminent domain being used to obtain property for the trail, Whitson made it clear the county does not plan to spend any money on the project or use eminent domain to take anyone’s property.
Commissioners made a motion to withdraw the county’s support of the rails to trails initiative following Whitson’s announcement, but the motion failed by a 2-3 vote. Commissioners Ted Owens and Tom Pack voted to rescind the county’s resolution of support and commissioner chair Ray Gasperson, vice-chair Renée McDermott and commissioner Cindy Walker voted against.
Commissioners earlier this year approved a resolution in support of the Saluda Grade Trail Committee exploring the creation of a trail system for possible hikers, bikers and equestrian activity along the rail line between Landrum and Saluda. Owens said he doesn’t feel comfortable with a piece of paper floating around that says the county supports this wholeheartedly. Pack said when he voted for the resolution he assumed Norfolk Southern owned the property and that’s not the case since property owners own the land to the middle of the railroad.
McDermott said there’s no need to take any action if the idea is a moot point.
“We have said there will be no use of eminent domain,” said McDermott, “At least it won’t get my vote. I don’t foresee there would be any money put into it. It seems so far in the future it’s just off the table on its own accord now.”
Walker said the resolution just helps the committee continue to explore the option and there’s still a lot of information to be obtained concerning any future possibilities.
Saluda Grade Trail Committee member Andy Millard updated commissioners on a recent meeting with property owners along the railway. The committee sent about 250 postcards to adjacent property owners. Millard said about 70 people attended the meeting. He said residents were split on whether or not they were in favor of the trail system or not, with few being undecided.
“The project is still in its infancy,” said Millard. “By no means are we at a point where we feel like we are ready to proceed with anything like a trail.
“We want everyone to know we appreciate, respect and honor the rights of property owners,” Millard said. “We have no desire to force this on someone against their will. We are just looking into it. And we are going to continue to engage property owners.”
Millard also said the committee realizes there are obstacles such as the rights of property owners, costs of the project and – the biggest obstacle – Norfolk Southern, which has said “no” several times.
Millard mentioned hearing about other times when Norfolk Southern has changed its mind quickly about giving up a line.
“This corridor is a priceless, historic and scenic resource,” said Millard. “And it built the economy of these three towns. All of us have a stake in what happens to that corridor.”
He said right now the line is an eyesore, a nuisance and liability, and the committee wants to be in a position when Norfolk Southern does change its mind that a plan is in place for what the area is going to do about the resource.
“Maybe a rail trail is not it, but we need to be talking about that resource,” Millard said. “Now is a great opportunity to press [Norfolk Southern]. By looking into it now we get a little leverage with Norfolk Southern. Our goal is the betterment of our community. We’re going about this the right way. We expect to spend at least the next six to eight months just doing homework.”
Commissioners also heard from several property owners who are adamantly against a trail system along the railroad.

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