Georgia PSC to allow arguments in railroad eminent domain case

Sandersville Railroad Company is seeking to invoke eminent domain to build a new rail spur through portions of a poor, rural east Georgia county
Greg Teague, the CEO of Croy Engineering, points to a map of the proposed Hanson Spur that the Sandersville Railroad Company is seeking to build, at a hearing at the Georgia Public Service Commission. (Drew Kann/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Greg Teague, the CEO of Croy Engineering, points to a map of the proposed Hanson Spur that the Sandersville Railroad Company is seeking to build, at a hearing at the Georgia Public Service Commission. (Drew Kann/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

State utility regulators will hear new oral arguments about a powerful railroad’s plan to force property owners in one of Georgia’s poorest counties to sell portions of their land so a new rail spur to serve private businesses can be built.

In a 4-0 vote, members of the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) granted the parties involved approval to present their cases before the full commission. The vote came two and a half months after a PSC hearing officer signed off on a request by Sandersville Railroad Company to condemn properties via eminent domain.

The officer’s decision is legally enforceable, but attorneys for property owners in the path of the proposed spur and others with land nearby asked the commission to review the order, allow additional oral argument and reject the initial ruling.

Marvin Smith testifies in opposition to the request of the Sandersville Railroad Company to acquire several pieces of property by eminent domain in Sparta, Georgia, during the Georgia Public Service Commission hearing at the Georgia Public Service Commission building, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Atlanta. The Smith’s own property that the railroad company are trying to acquire. (Jason Getz /


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The PSC did not take action Tuesday on the request for a review, and is unlikely to do so until after oral arguments are held. Each party in the case is likely to get at least 20 minutes to make their case, but it was not immediately clear when arguments will be scheduled.

The case represents one of the most significant tests of Georgia’s eminent domain laws to emerge in years and could set precedent for use of the controversial power. It pits a politically connected Georgia railroad against mostly African American property owners, some whose families have ties to their land dating to slavery.

Eminent domain is when a government or utility forces a private property owner to sell some — or all — of their land for a specific project. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against abuse of eminent domain and requires “just compensation” for seized property.

Railroads are considered a public utility and have the authority to invoke eminent domain, but Georgia law requires a court’s determination that a project serves a “public use.” At the heart of the case is whether the Sandersville Railroad’s expansion meets that standard.

The company wants to build a 4.5-mile rail line near the town of Sparta, about 100 miles east of downtown Atlanta. The proposed Hanson Spur would link a nearby rock quarry to an existing CSX Transportation line, and might be used by other local businesses to ship grain, wood chips, liquid asphalt and more. The company says trains on the spur would travel less than 20 miles per hour and only run during daylight hours on weekdays.

To build the spur, Sandersville Railroad needs to secure portions of 18 parcels along the route. The company’s attorneys said the railroad has written or verbal agreements with some landowners in the area, but several others rebuffed their offers.

Many of the Sparta residents whose properties the railroad is seeking to acquire have deep ties to their land. Some are descendants of slaves who worked on cotton plantations in the area before the Civil War. Attorneys from the Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit legal group that represents several landowners facing the eminent domain claims, have argued that the spur would only benefit a few private businesses and was not a legitimate public use.

“... (Sandersville) had to prove that the taking would result in benefits flowing to the public, not just a few identified private companies, or that its proposed condemnation would serve industries that are sufficiently associated with the public interest to qualify as a public purpose,” attorneys for the landowners argued in their application for commission review. “Sandersville did not do this.”

Sandersville Railroad’s attorneys have acknowledged the landowners’ strong personal and historical connections to their land, but argued they were irrelevant to the central question of whether the project meets the public use threshold.

Lawyers representing the company had urged the PSC to reject the landowners’ request for review, arguing the hearing officer’s initial ruling was correct and that the commission should not allow “a second bite at the evidentiary apple.”

In hearings last year and in filed briefs, Sandersville Railroad’s attorneys touted the potential economic boost the rail spur could bring to Hancock County, which has ranked among Georgia’s poorest for decades. The railroad says the spur will boost tax revenues, pump $1.5 million annually into the local economy and create 12 new jobs with average salaries of $90,000.

Sandersville’s attorneys have also said the Hanson Spur would allow small businesses in the area to ship goods on CSX’s main line, creating new channels of trade and serving the public good.

Also intervening in the case against the forced sales is the grassroots No Railroad in Our Community Coalition, which is comprised mostly of residents living near the proposed rail spur, but whose land is not subject to condemnation. The group is represented by the the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which joined the landowners who could be forced to sell their land in asking the commission to revisit the initial decision.