The Johnston County Board of Commissioners, which had been vilified on social media for the past week as trading family farms for a CSX railroad hub in Selma, left the meeting room Wednesday night to applause.
Following a special closed meeting, board chairman Tony Braswell unequivocally stated the board’s opposition to CSX’s proposed site between Selma and Micro, though that opposition stems mainly from the company’s tactics alerting landowners than any rejection of the $272 million project.
“Let me be crystal clear: This board does not support the site that has been selected,” Braswell said. “We believe this project could be a great benefit to the county, but we’re not going to do it at the expense of the citizens we represent.”
Last Thursday, CSX announced eastern Johnston County as the chosen location for a 450-acre intermodal container facility that would serve as a significant gatekeeper of Southeast commerce. Freight cargo on trains and trucks would pass through the facility to be routed towards their final destinations. Company and local officials immediately praised the impact the hub could have on North Carolina, believing companies would build distribution centers in the region to cut shipping costs.
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Despite spending three years to decide on Selma for the project, the company did not contact landowners until the day of the announcement, each with a knock on the door and an offer to buy. Over the weekend, some landowners took to social media to express their outrage over feeling forced off their land, and many more stood behind them.
Wednesday night, commissioners said they stood behind them, too.
“We wanted to make a comment to the people whose lives have been torn apart, who have not been the same since Thursday,” Braswell said. “This board does not support the current site of the project or the use of eminent domain to acquire property by CSX or any other for-profit corporation.”
North Carolina law grants eminent domain powers to private railroad companies for the purposes of building depots and terminals, rail yards and rail lines.
Braswell said the board first learned about the project a little more than a month ago, on Dec. 7, and did not know exactly where CSX wanted to build its facility. Johnston County economic development director Chris Johnson said he was first told of CSX’s plan in July by state and company officials and bound by a non-disclosure agreement that kept even the board of commissioners in the dark until December.
“My first question was, ‘What if no one wants to sell?’” Johnson said he asked CSX. “Ideally, we would have liked to have been able to approach property owners and work through that system.”
CSX did not make a spokesperson available beyond a statement it released Thursday morning. The company did not seem to take Johnston County’s public rejection to heart and appeared hopeful the so-called Carolina Connector might still become a reality.
“We are grateful to the Commissioners and Johnston County for continuing a collaboration between CSX, local officials and the community,” the statement read. “We look forward to further conversations with community members to gather constructive feedback, answer questions and build a path forward for this project... CSX looks forward to partnering with local officials and citizens to build a terminal that honors Johnston County’s values, creates economic growth and brings tangible benefits to the community.”
For Johnson, the project is still very much alive, though he’s scrambling to find 450 ready-to-sell-acres.
“My task now is to try and find that next site and do everything we can do to put this thing together,” Johnson said. “If anyone has even a blade of grass for sale along the CSX line, call me.”
This week, as the project seemed threatened by a loss of public support, CSX officials reiterated the company’s consideration of other states and counties for its container hub, suggesting Johnston County may not get a second chance. Johnson, though, said the county is just as competitive as before.
“Interstate 40 hasn’t moved and 70 hasn’t moved,” Johnson said. “We still have two major rail lines intersecting the county.”
In his comments Wednesday night, Braswell brought up Novo Nordisk and the $1.8 billion, 700-job expansion Johnston County already has in the bag. That project is slated to begin construction this year and puts the county in a more stable position than much of Eastern North Carolina. Johnson said Novo Nordisk had no bearing on the county’s position on CSX, but said North Carolina needs this hub.
“We have a lot we can be proud of; we just had our best year ever,” Johnson said. “This project would mean so much to Eastern North Carolina. I don’t want to wake and find out there was more we could do here. I don’t want to drive over a trestle and see container cars going to another state.”
Trent Lassiter, owner of music and event venue The Farm, which would be lost under CSX’s current plan, spearheaded the opposition campaign to convince the railroad to look elsewhere. He said he heard what he wanted to hear from the board of commissioners, but that he’s not done yet.
“I was pleased – I was glad that last night happened,” Lassiter said. “But this is just a first step in the process. It won’t be over until we have in writing that it’s not going to happen on anyone’s land who doesn’t want it.”
Lassiter said he wants to see the CSX terminal built in Johnston County or somewhere in the state, but only where it’s wanted.
“I know North Carolina needs this project, but it needs to be where people don’t mind it,” he said. “I can’t go into the gentleman’s home who owns CSX and say I’m going to put my business here.”
Jackson: 919-553-7234, ext. 104; @jdrewjackson