Georgia railroad can force sale of land in poor county, PSC rules

Sandersville Railroad is seeking to acquire portions of land in Sparta through eminent domain to build a new rail spur
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.

Credit: Drew Kann

Credit: Drew Kann

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.

A Georgia railroad can force property owners in a rural community to sell portions of their land so the company can build a rail spur to serve private businesses, a Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) officer ruled Monday.

The decision announced by the hearing officer who heard the case is legally enforceable, but may not be the final word on the condemnations in the majority Black town in Hancock County, one of the state’s poorest.

Attorneys for the property owners whose land is in question said they plan to appeal the ruling to the five elected members of the PSC. And any decision by the PSC could be challenged further in Fulton County Superior Court.

Still, the ruling is a significant development in a case that tested Georgia’s eminent domain laws and could set precedent for use of the controversial power.

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. As a public utility, railroads have the authority to invoke it. But to exert that power, Georgia law requires a court’s determination that a project serves a public use.

The case revolved around the plans of the Sandersville Railroad Company to build a 4.5-mile rail line near the town of Sparta, about 65 miles west of Augusta. 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 needed 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. In hearings last fall and in filed briefs, attorneys from the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents several landowners facing the eminent domain claims, argued that the spur would only benefit a few private businesses and was not a legitimate public use.

Blaine Smith, one of the landowners represented by the IJ whose property the railroad wants to acquire, vowed to keep fighting the condemnations.

“We’re not going to sit back and let Sandersville Railroad take land that has been in our family for generations, just so a rock quarry can ship rock faster, and so a few companies can increase their profits,” Smith said in a statement. “This property is more than just land to us — it is our heritage.”

Blaine 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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Sandersville Railroad’s attorneys acknowledged those strong personal and historical connections many have to their land, but argued they were irrelevant to the central question of whether the proposed spur met the “public use” threshold.

The company’s attorneys 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. They also argued it would economically help Hancock County, which has ranked among Georgia’s poorest for decades.

Hancock’s median household income is about half the statewide average, and more than 30% of the county’s population lives below the poverty line. While Georgia’s population has grown in recent years, Hancock has lost more than a tenth of its population since 2010.

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.

In a statement, Sandersville Railroad said it’s grateful the PSC officer recognized “the importance of preserving the rights of government entities, utilities and state-chartered railroads to build and maintain infrastructure like the Hanson Spur to facilitate free enterprise and robust trade.”

“It is critical to Georgia’s future economic health that these entities have clear legal rights to deliver vital economic infrastructure,” the statement continued.

In a statement, Bill Maurer, a senior attorney at the IJ, criticized the PSC officer’s ruling. After a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in 2005 altered federal eminent domain law, Georgia and several other states responded by tightening their rules in response.

Maurer said the hearing officer’s decision “essentially undoes that work.”

“This is a private company taking property from people for its own economic benefit and the economic benefit of a handful of private companies, none of which serve the public,” Maurer said. “We will fight to ensure that the people of the state of Georgia are protected from this kind of abuse at every stage we can.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was also involved in the case representing the grassroots No Railroad in Our Community Coalition. The coalition is comprised mostly of residents living near the proposed rail spur, but whose land was not subject to condemnation.

In a statement, SPLC senior staff attorney Jamie Rush expressed disappointment in the hearing officer’s ruling and said the railroad’s eminent domain claims are “solely about a private company seeking to increase its own profits and the business of a handful of other companies.”

“The railroad company has shown minimal to no consideration of the history of this community or the American dream shared by these families, who hope to retain their land and pass economic prosperity on to their future generations,” Rush said in a statement.

Rush added that the SPLC is consulting with community members on their next steps in the case.

This story has been updated to correct that Sparta is west of Augusta.