Nearly six months before Johnston County spent much time thinking about CSX, economic-development director Chris Johnson knew eminent domain could be problematic for the railroad’s plans for the county.
In emails, Johnson voiced these concerns to N.C. Rail Division director Paul Worley in late July. But no emails suggest the county, state or CSX did anything to address those concerns in advance of the January announcement of a $272 million intermodal container hub.
“From what I can gather and from memory, ‘The Farm’ is going to be in the middle of this project,” Johnson wrote on July 27 of last year. “What happens if a property owner doesn’t want to sell? I am confident that the Commissioners will support the project, but I just don’t see them taking a position of ‘them being involved’ in condemning someone’s land.”
Johnson’s mention of The Farm, Trent Lassiter’s events venue, is an eerie premonition of how land-buying attempts went for the company. On the morning of CSX’s announcement, a representative went door to door offering to buy land along the railroad’s north-south line between Selma and Micro. He made few deals.
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In response, Worley suggested The Farm could be moved.
“I expect there are places for them to relocate with any cash received from the purchase,” Worley wrote back to Johnson in July.
Worley said that if a deal couldn’t be made, the railroad could use eminent domain but could not use “quick-take,” which is available to the state. “They would have to condemn, settle on a price and then take the property,” Worley wrote.”I don’t think that the County has to take a position on condemning property.”
Johnson said commissioners would see their public image at stake if they supported a project that was condemning land while also receiving an incentives package. For CSX to locate in North Carolina, the company is asking for $100 million from the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments program.
Johnson, though, remained hopeful things would work out.
“Hopefully the property owners will see this as an opportunity,” Johnson wrote to Worley. “Looks like most of the land is either farm land and rental houses. There are only a few homeowners from what I can tell.”
Two days later, Johnson, Worley and a team of state and economic-development officials traveled to Ohio to tour CSX’s container hub in North Baltimore. They were back home that evening.
Because of a nondisclosure agreement with CSX, Johnson kept the project from county commissioners until a December closed-door meeting. But once CSX announced its plans for the county, Johnson’s eminent domain fears proved well founded.
In emails and on social media, critics saw the project as a land-grab scheme.
“I can not believe that our elected officials knew nothing of this until it was announced,” Christy Davis wrote to the commissioners three days before they pulled their support for the project on land near Selma. “This is a dirty, underhanded, cowardly way to do business.”
“I’m a business owner,” Joel Gillie wrote in a Jan. 18 email to the board. “With my business, I can’t walk up to a landowner and say ‘Hey there, I like this piece of land. ... I’m going to take it now.’ ”
The county ultimately agreed and held a special meeting to condemn CSX for not bringing landowners into the discussion earlier.
The project has been quiet for weeks, but with three county chambers of commerce and a new vote of support from county commissioners, Johnston hopes its not too late to land CSX. In their statement of support, commissioners said they felt most Johnstonians support the project.
“This county and eastern North Carolina have too much at stake to allow this to fail,” Smithfield attorney George Mast wrote to the board in late January. “I suspect a substantial majority of our citizens feel the same way. You represent all of this fine county. Our county has a great future, we need your leadership. Your handling of this matter will affect the future economic and social welfare of our children, grandchildren and heirs for infinity.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson