Columbus leaders move to take back rail yard land. What happens next?

Columbus city leaders say they’ve made a crucial and historic move toward reclaiming about 80 acres of prime in-town real estate that railroads have been using for around 175 years.

But their next step is yet to be determined, they say.

City councilors passed a resolution last week declaring that dating back to 1847, the city allowed railroads to use its public land on the condition the property would revert back to the city when those uses ceased.

The city says it never deeded the railroads the East Commons property roughly bordered by Sixth Avenue and 10th Avenue from Linwood Boulevard to 10th Street, so it retained ownership.

Now the conditions under which it gave the railroads use of that area -- to build passenger depots or freight warehouses -- have ceased and the railroad and parcels should revert to Columbus, the city claims.

The resolution names various railroad companies which were granted access to the East Commons over the decades. But it is directed at the current user, Norfolk Southern Railway Company, calling it “a successor railroad entity” to all those that came before.

Though the resolution claims Columbus owns the land, it does not tell Norfolk Southern to vacate the property, or threaten any legal action.

“I think right now it’s just another step,” said Mayor Skip Henderson. He said it was “a step toward having a dialogue with the railroad,” and not an ultimatum.

It was not a step city leaders were willing to postpone.

No delay

When interim citywide Councilor Tyson Begly asked his colleagues for a month’s delay on the resolution Tuesday, they declined.

Begly said postponing the vote would allow more time for discussions with the railroad.

He believed Norfolk Southern would be more willing to talk “when there are less lawyers involved.”

Judy Thomas, council’s other at-large representative, told him attorneys with Page, Scrantom, Sprouse, Tucker & Ford had advised council to proceed: “It’s my understanding, Councilor Begly, that we need this resolution in order for our attorneys to move forward in this case,” she said.

Added City Attorney Clifton Fay: “This won’t prohibit any discussions. This is a first step in possibly repurposing the rail yard.”

Only Begly voted no, when the resolution passed.

‘It’s historic’

When Georgia legislators established the city of Columbus in 1827 and 1828, three swaths of land were set aside for the public’s common use: a North Commons, East Commons and South Commons.

The North Commons has been developed. The South Commons along the Chattahoochee River has been devoted to public recreation, since the state deeded it to the city in 1928. It has the Columbus Civic Center, ice rink, A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, softball complex and Golden Park, the baseball stadium.

The railroads gradually occupied the East Commons as the city granted them access on the rationale that passenger rail was a public use and benefit befitting the commons’ original intent.

Based on research conducted primarily by attorney Jack Schley of Page-Scrantom, council’s resolution listed these East Commons access grants:

  • To the Muscogee Railroad Company, for a passenger depot, in 1847.

  • To the Montgomery & West Point Railroad Company, for a passenger depot, in 1859.

  • To the Mobile & Girard Railroad Company, for a depot, in 1869.

  • To the Georgia Midland & Gulf Railway Company, for access to the Muscogee Railroad Company’s depot, in 1886.

Norfolk Southern was mentioned only as a successor railroad currently controlling the property.

Civic leaders over the years repeatedly have proposed reclaiming the rail yards, envisioning redevelopment scenarios such as a “central park” akin to New York City’s.

Here’s the late Columbus philanthropist Bill Turner, in a 2002 Ledger-Enquirer interview: “I have heard some people say this, that ought to be primarily greenspace. You go to New York and Central Park. Things develop around greenspace.”

Asked what could replace the rail yard when moving it was proposed in 2007, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee said: “Name something, apartment buildings, homes, schools, football fields, parks, grocery stores, any and everything.”

Mayor Henderson said the land still presents a “massive redevelopment opportunity,” though the city currently has no specific plans for the property.

In an interview Friday, District 2 Councilor Glenn Davis said the latest move shows the city is not just daydreaming now: It is ready to act.

“This thing has been a moving target for a while, and finally we’re making headway,” he said. “This was absolutely the right time to dig into this.”

Thomas, the citywide councilor, said the research findings should enlighten both the council and its constituents.

“This has been going on for a long time,” she noted Friday, and yet: “Most of us did not know there was this question as to ownership of the land.”

Norfolk Southern has yet to respond publicly. No one with the company returned a call from the Ledger-Enquirer seeking comment.

Thomas said she’s uncertain what the next step will be, but she believes the city will not let the issue rest, this time.

“I’m not sure exactly what it is,” she said of the next move, “but we need to move on and get this taken care of.”

Davis said city leaders see this not just as a development opportunity, but as a chance to “do something for the next generation.”

“It’s historic that we’ve gotten to where we’re at right now,” he said. “This is the citizens’ land.”