Johnston County

CSX voids land deals for hub in Johnston County

Opponents appear to have won their brief battle against cargo-container hub in Johnston County.
Opponents appear to have won their brief battle against cargo-container hub in Johnston County. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

A letter mailed late last month to some landowners is the clearest sign yet that CSX has abandoned Selma as the site for a $272 million cargo-container hub.

The letter, sent to landowners willing to sell to CSX, said the company had terminated their purchase agreements. CSX hasn’t said how many landowners had agreed to sell, but those who did stood as a silent minority against a tide of opposition against the project.

One month ago, to fanfare and praise from elected leaders, CSX said it would buy 450 acres between Selma and Micro for an intermodal container terminal that would become an East Coast hub for cargo containers traveling on ships, trains and trucks.

But while CSX scouted the area for three years, the company didn’t contact affected landowners until the day of the announcement in January. In a matter of days, landowners unwilling to sell to CSX launched an opposition campaign that led Gov. Pat McCrory and Johnston County commissioners to withdraw their support.

Now it appears CSX is withdrawing, too. Ann Earp agreed to sell seven acres to CSX but later received a letter telling her the deal was off.

“It is kind of disappointing,” Earp said. “But it’s a double-edged sword.”

The other edge of the sword, Earp said, was that the project would displace neighbors who did not want to sell their homes, farms and businesses. Earp said she harbored no ill-will toward neighbors whose opposition might have derailed her deal with CSX.

“I understand exactly what they’re going through,” she said. “It would have been nice, but I’m letting it go. It won’t make me or break me.”

Earp said the agreement she signed with CSX did not spell out how much the company would pay for her land, just that she was willing to sell. In a conversation, Earp said, a CSX representative quoted a price, but she declined to reveal it.

CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said the company would not comment beyond its Jan. 27 statement that CSX “is committed to this infrastructure project.” The company did not specify whether or not that commitment was specific to Johnston County or North Carolina.

The canceled contracts don’t bode well for the project moving forward in Johnston, said Chris Johnson, the county’s economic development director. But he remains hopeful that if Johnston loses out, the container hub will stay in North Carolina.

“If it went to another county in Eastern North Carolina, certainly we would benefit, possibly just as much as if it were built in Johnston County,” Johnson said. “Now, I’m focusing on other projects, trying to regroup. This might be a missed opportunity. We may never know exactly why it happened like this.”

Johnson said he hasn’t spoken with CSX in weeks. Normally when working on an industrial prospect, Johnson said, he deals primarily with the lead state agency on the project. In this case, that agency is the state’s Rail Division.

The Rail Division has said recently that it is going ahead with evaluating the CSX project for possible state funding through North Carolina’s competitive Strategic Transportation Improvement Program. CSX wanted $100 million from the state to add to the $150 million it planned to spend to build the container hub.

Rail Division director Paul Worley declined to comment on the status of the project.

For the past month, 28-year-old Trent Lassiter has served as opposition leader to the container hub, successfully rallying thousands of supporters behind his effort to save The Farm, his 2-year-old concert and events venue. As the wave of public sentiment shifted dramatically in his favor, Lassiter didn’t count anything as a victory. In the voided contracts, though, he thinks he sees the beginning of something real.

“This is a pretty big statement in my eyes,” Lassiter said. “CSX isn’t saying anything, which worries me, but we do feel better than we did.”

Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson

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