Approximately 200 people turned out for a meeting at the Four Oaks Town Council Monday night, many in protest of a proposed CSX rail terminal. About 50 people were allowed in the council chambers while the remaining 150 or so gathered on the front lawn of the town hall.
Residents learned there had been more discussions with CSX than originally disclosed.
Mayor Linwood Parker spoke to the audience about 30 minutes, including how Four Oaks ended up in the discussions for a rail terminal. Parker said days after the deal fell through for the intermodal terminal between Selma and Micro, Johnston County Economic Development leaders and the state railroad division contacted him about potential sites.
Parker said the first proposed site on US301 between Smithfield and Four Oaks was reviewed but determined to be unusable. A more suitable tract was found on US301 just south of Four Oaks, however the site was so close to Four Oaks it could have potentially backed up trains in the city limits. A third tract, the most suitable, was then located by the NC Department of Transportation Rail Division between Four Oaks and Benson.
Mayor Parker said the property owners would be paid $25,000 per acre for their land and double the value of improvements on the property, including homes and outbuildings.
Using that formula, it would cost CSX $16 million to buy 400 acres of land at the site. Mayor Parker said reviewing a map of the 400 acres he saw several farms and tracts of land that would be split. Parker said no one would benefit from a split-farm site and encouraged the railroad to take in the entire tracts, which would take about 450 acres of land, and cost CSX $18.5 million.
Four Oaks Site Preferable
Parker said CSX is looking at three other sites and all the other sites cost less than Four Oaks. However, the mayor said Four Oaks was the preferable site due to the proximity to the I-95/I-40 interchange and because of 2,000 acres of available land for commercial and industrial development between Camelia Road and Raleigh Road.
The DOT has reportedly developed a proposed new route to bring truck traffic into the terminal, should it locate in Four Oaks. Parker said trucks would exit off Interstate 40 and there would be a flyover at Raleigh Road to avoid interfering with school traffic. Parker said 7,800 cars travel on US301 through Four Oaks daily, while 13,000 cars travel on US301South of Smithfield to I-95 daily. The mayor said traffic created by the terminal, with estimates varying between 900 and 2,000 vehicles, would travel on the new route “through the country.” The mayor admitted, the DOT would have to acquire land to widen roads and build the new access, which could result in much more than 450 acres being taken for the project.
Caterpillar in Clayton is one of the businesses that would benefit from a local rail hub. The Clayton-facility pays about $2,000 per unit to ship a piece of equipment by truck. If they had access to the rail terminal, the shipping cost would drop to $400 per unit. And with Clayton’s rapid business and bio-pharmaceutical growth, two additional rail spurs will be needed regardless of the terminals location, Parker said Monday night.
Addressing concerns about increased train traffic, the mayor said regardless of the terminal’s location, 90 miles north or south of Four Oaks, the same number of trains will pass through town each day, no matter if it is built locally.
Parker said Four Oaks is handling the process differently that the proposed Selma-Micro site. He said town officials have been working with property owners to let them know upfront what is being considered. At the other site, he said property owners only learned about the project after receiving a knock on their door by railroad officials.
Mayor Parker said it wasn’t his decision whether CSX comes to Four Oaks. “The railroad is a business. They will make a business decision in the end.”
Opponents Criticize Town Leaders
A total of 13 people spoke during a public comments section. Only one person spoke in favor of the railroad. Many of the opponents asked the mayor how he could tell CSX that Four Oaks supports the terminal when the majority of landowners are opposed.
Randy Johnson said no one could put a price on his land and living 5 minutes from family members if they needed help. Johnson said citizens elected members in Four Oaks to representative them, not CSX. “I’m disgusted with all of you.” He asked the board and mayor to retract a letter of support for CSX.
Michelle Keene said she built her “forever home” last year on land in the family for 4 generations. Keene said she was angry the town was trying to change the way of life of the small community. “It’s not what we chose.”
Resident Walter Rabon said, “You’re literally poking a hornet’s nest with a stick,” describing the land grab and clear message from those in attendance, their land is not for sale.
Jami Champagne, who lives in Parkersfield Subdivision off Old School Road, expressed concerns about noise, health and cancer concerns and a decrease in property values for adjacent homeowners. She said no one would be willing to buy a home adjacent to the terminal.
David Walker who moved to the community 6 years ago said town leaders had been disrespectful to the property owners. Walker said based on what he knows about an intermodal terminal, one truck will be unloaded every 35 seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even with a shortcut off I-40, Walker said truckers will find a shortcut and traffic will increase through town to get to the terminal.
Bridgette Olive summed up the frustration of the landowners. “I’m going to say shame on you. We should have never been offered up.” Rebecca Allen agreed during her comments. “We’re not collateral damage for the greater good. Why should our personal loss be your personal gain?”
Kim Guignard was the only individual to speak in favor of CSX. “Home is not a place, a piece of land, it is family.” She said Four Oaks and Johnston County are changing and growing, which can sometimes be painful. She pointed out to rising unemployment, residents having to drive to jobs in Wake County, and meth labs being found in the community, as reasons the estimated 300 jobs CSX would create are needed locally.
“Do you think about the person, the farmers, who lost land to put in I-40 since it went in from one end of the state to the other?” Guignard said no one thinks about eminent domain when they travel on Interstate 40, but that is what it took to build the interstate.
“Two Rich People”
Opponents also asked why opposition from the Lassiter family in Micro was enough to stop the terminal there but their opposition was not enough to potentially stop the railroad in Four Oaks.
“Because two rich people opposed it is not a reason for government to oppose it,” Parker said.
Trent Lassiter and his father, Donnie, were not present at the meeting. On Tuesday, Trent told WTSB News he was disappointed by the mayor’s comments.
“Our fight had nothing to do with money. For anybody to bring up finances, it has nothing to do with the fight. I hate he said that. Everybody has an opinion. That’s fine.”
Mayor Parker said he and the board are opposed to eminent domain, and reminded residents Cabela’s would be located in Four Oaks had it not been for one landowner unwilling to sale. Parker said Four Oaks could have taken the land but they didn’t and never will. However, he said the railroad has the authority for eminent domain. “It’s their decision, not mine.”
Residents Divided, Decision Deadline
Parker said he will meet with an attorney representing CSX on Wednesday and share the residents’ concerns. He said the issue has divided the town and he has lost friends over the issue. The mayor said he would ask CSX to make a decision “one way or the other” no later than April 21st to let the community know if they are or are not coming to Four Oaks. “I’m just ready, I’m just ready for it to be over with.”