When CSX announced earlier this month that it would build a $272 million container hub in Johnston County, Jennifer Edwards found out at the same time as everyone else – but in a much different way.
“The man from CSX came to my door, and I invited him in, and he said, ‘We want to buy your property,’ ” Edwards said. “I told him, ‘That interesting, because it’s not for sale.’ ”
Edwards and her husband, who live on Brown-Wall Road, own about 40 of the 450 acres CSX plans to buy for the Carolina Connector, a hub that will route and reroute cargo containers coming by train and truck to destinations elsewhere.
Based in Jacksonville, Fla., CSX plans to spend $150 million and is seeking $100 million from North Carolina’s State Transportation Improvement Program, which funds highway and other transportation projects. The hub promises hundreds of construction jobs, and state and county leaders think it will spawn hundreds more as distribution companies descend on North Carolina, lured by the ease of shipping.
But for Edwards, none of that speaks to her family’s legacy on the property or soothes her pain for losing the land where her grandmother and mother once lived.
“It’s not about a farm or a house; it’s about that soil,” Edwards said. “You can’t replicate that anywhere you go; it’s something that can’t be bought.”
The Carolina Connector would also swallow up The Farm, Trent Lassiter’s music and events venue on Batten Road. He first heard about the project when his dad called him at work to say a man was at the door wanting to talk to him. The conversation was similar to the one Edwards had: The man said he wanted to buy the family farm and business.
Lassiter, 28, said it wasn’t for sale.
“He said if we could not agree on a price, it would have to move to the next step, and the legal division would get involved,” Lassiter said.
State law gives private railroad companies the power of eminent domain, meaning they can forcibly take land and then pay a fair-market price set by a judge or jury.
“I told him I had no idea what fair-market value would be; it’s not about a dollar amount,” said Lassiter, who also owns nearby sporting good store Springhill Outfitters. “I didn’t think CSX could take my land. I sell guns and I throw concerts; I don’t know anything about this stuff.”
Why didn’t anyone think, ‘We should go out and talk to these people.’ I could have told them three years ago that they’re looking in the wrong place.
Since CSX announced its plans on Jan. 14, Lassiter has launched “Fight for the Farm,” a Facebook group opposed to the project. The page has garnered more than 6,000 likes and caught the attention of state and local elected leaders. On Monday, Lassiter received a call from Gov. Pat McCrory.
“He just wanted me to know that our concerns had made it up to his office,” Lassiter said.
Louis Renjel is vice president of strategic infrastructure for CSX. In Johnston County, he said, eminent domain is a long way off, and he said those looking to kill the Selma hub should let the process play out.
“Let’s at least have a conversation,” Renjel said. “We’ll work day and night to get to a solution where high-paying jobs come to Johnston County and bring all the economic development we’ve talked about. That process just began on (Jan. 14); it’s the beginning of a conversation.”
Renjel said the container hub would affect 60 parcels and 35 landowners, and he characterized the negotiations as going “exceedingly well.” In his 10 years of land deals for CSX, Renjel said, few have made it to the courtroom. But he would not say what percentage of projects had involved eminent domain or name one that did.
“The vast, vast, vast majority of cases resolve positively,” Renjel said. “We want to work this out and do right by the people.”
No deal has been finalized, but landowner Ann Earp, 75, believes she’ll be able to reach an agreement with CSX for seven acres of her land. The railroad tracks split her property and wouldn’t impact her home, where she intends to stay. Earp, though, draws a distinction between her situation and her neighbors’.
“We’ve had the land 50 years, not like others who have been on their property for generations,” Earp said. “Ours is just plain land. We’re not impacted like a lot of others are.”
Two timelines frustrate Edwards and Lassiter, one from the past and one in perhaps the near future.
CSX scouted the 450 acres between Selma and Micro at least three years ago as the company whittled down sites for the hub. Eighteen months ago, Renjel said, 10 sites were still in the running, but anything before that was simply due-diligence fieldwork. Edwards wonders why a simple conversation wasn’t part of that due diligence.
“Why was our input not valuable if our land is so valuable?” she said. “Why didn’t anyone think, ‘We should go out and talk to these people.’ I could have told them three years ago that they’re looking in the wrong place.”
Edwards said the CSX representative who visited her home told her the company wanted to move her out in six months. Renjel said the timeline was not that aggressive.
“We don’t need to move that quickly,” he said. “There’s some permitting we’d like to do next year, but construction wouldn’t start until 2018 at the earliest.”
The conflict has ensnared some politicians and given others fuel for their campaigns. When CSX announced its plans, support for the project was immediate and unanimous. Gov. McCrory’s office released a statement touting the economic impact the hub could have on North Carolina. But as news spread that CSX hadn’t contacted landowners ahead of the public announcement, politicians started walking back their earlier endorsements.
Immediately after the announcement, Johnston County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tony Braswell released a statement praising the economic boost the hub would give to one of the county’s struggling corners. But Braswell, who’s running for the N.C. House, and the rest of the Johnston County commissioners strongly condemned the current CSX plan following a closed session meeting Wednesday night.
“The Johnston County Board of Commissioners does not support the current site of the project or the use of eminent domain to acquire property by CSX or any for profit corporation,” Braswell said. “We’re disappointed and appalled by reports of the manner in which property owners have been approached to sell their land.”
State Sen. Brent Jackson, whose district includes a portion of Johnston County but not Selma, initially tweeted excitement over the jobs and economic development the project would bring. Three days later on Twitter, he was calling it a “land grab” by CSX.
“I had assumed a deal had been worked out with landowners,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “I realized it had not been, and my opinion changed.”
Jackson, though, supports the substance of the project and fears CSX’s poor approach might end up costing North Carolina.
“I still think we need a hub in Eastern North Carolina, but this process was the wrong way to do it,” Jackson said. “The landowners should have been notified before the announcement. I’m sorry it’s come to where it has. It would be a great spur to the economy in Eastern North Carolina and might lead to manufacturing jobs that we might not get without it.”
Renjel said that’s a real possibility, suggesting that the company’s second choice might not be in North Carolina.
“We looked at a lot of different sites in different states and counties before choosing Selma and Johnston County,” Renjel said. “We’ve been in the Selma area a long time; our mainline runs right through the area, and we’re excited about becoming a bigger part of the community.”
Edwards also spoke of community, of generations of farmers who looked to the land to provide for their families, who chose to stay on the land because they couldn’t envision a life anywhere else.
Edwards said if CSX forces her off her land, she’ll leave and never look back.
“I can’t see it and live here among it,” she said of the proposed hub. “I will never be back. I don’t ever want to see it. I don’t want to ride down the road and see it.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson