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A retired Georgia couple is fighting back against a railroad company that wants to take land their family has owned for generations

Sam Tabahriti   

A retired Georgia couple is fighting back against a railroad company that wants to take land their family has owned for generations
  • A retired Georgia couple is battling a railroad company that wants their land.
  • The Garretts' family has owned the land since the 1800s and they aren't prepared to back down.

A retired Georgia couple has embarked on a battle against a private railroad company attempting to use the state's power to take land their family has owned for generations.

Don and Sally Garrett are among a group of landowners who partnered with the nonprofit Institute for Justice in the hope of keeping Sandersville Railroad from using eminent domain, a process that allows a state to seize land.

The Garretts inherited the land, which has been in their family since the 1800s, and Don isn't prepared to back down. "This is more than just land to our family — it's where we've shared memories and built a life for ourselves for generations," he said. "We're not going to let Sandersville just go in and take it from us."

Sparta is a small rural town and home to just 1,300 people in Hancock County, Georgia. According to census data, 70% of the county's population is Black and almost one in three people live in poverty.

Sandersville Railroad wants to build a rail spur so it can more easily transport materials used for making concrete from the Hanson Quarry, a rock mine owned by Heidelberg Materials, a German building-materials company previously known as HeidelbergCement.

The company filed a petition, seen by Insider, with the Georgia Public Service Commission on March 8. It requested the authority to condemn the Garretts' land through a process known as eminent domain.

The company said in its petition that the Hanson Spur, the rail line it wants to build, would require parcels from 18 nearby properties. Its construction, expected to start this year, would take about 15 months.

It would, however, mean residents of Sparta would have to deal with more dust and debris from the increased capacity of transportation.

The Guardian reported in early April that some residents were already battling the company's attempt at seizing their land with the help of Jamie Rush, a senior attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Janet Smith, a retired schoolteacher and army veteran who was already active in the fight against the railroad company, told The Guardian: "Our community is already like a dumping ground, so we're going to fight this to the end — there is no compromise."

US states sometimes delegate the power of eminent domain to private entities, and according to the Institute for Justice, private companies may want to acquire land for something other than public use.

Should the state of Georgia give Sandersville Railroad the authority to take the Garretts' land, the couple must be fairly compensated, according to the Department of Justice. But money isn't what they're after — the Garretts simply want to keep their land.

The Institute for Justice has accused the railroad company of abusing eminent-domain power. Bill Maurer, a senior attorney with Institute for Justice, said in a press release: "Taking people's private land and handing it over to a private company for the benefit of a private business isn't just wrong, it's unconstitutional and against Georgia law."

He added: "The power to use eminent domain is limited to public uses and the public is not going to use this railroad — a private business is. Neither the Constitution nor Georgia statutes permit this kind of abuse of the eminent domain power."

Blaine and Diane Smith are also part of the group fighting back against the railroad's attempt to take land that has been in their family for a hundred years. "We refuse to let a private company come take the land that we hope to leave for our children and our children's children," Blaine said.

Blaine Smith's cousin, Marvin Smith, and his wife, Pat, have also joined the fight to keep the land that belonged to their great-grandmother, who was born a slave there, in their family.

Blaine and Marvin Smith own separate parcels of land, both of which Sandersville's push for eminent domain would impact.

The cousins' grandparents became owners of the land in the 1920s and always told their children to cherish and hold onto it.

The Institute for Justice told Insider that other residents who the proposal could impact could join the fight — but that only the Garretts and the Smiths are part of the lawsuit for now.

And the only way for Sandersville Railroad's project to work is to run its spur to the quarry by taking parts of some residents' land, which representatives for the institute find unreasonable.

"Their stated 'rationale' is that it will take trucks off the road in Sparta, but we don't accept that at face value," a spokesperson for the Institute for Justice told Insider.

Ben Tarbutton III, a representative for Sandersville Railroad, said the company disagreed "with the assertions made by the Institute for Justice."

He said the spur line would only make one round trip a day, creating new jobs and tax revenue "for one of Georgia's poorest counties."

"The spur will not require the taking of anyone's home nor will it prevent any property owner from using their pastures, hunting areas, or timbering their property," Tarbutton said.

"Utilizing eminent domain is not our preferred approach but given the lack of willingness to engage from the Garrett and Smith families, we welcome clarity from the PSC on this matter and look forward to its ruling."

Betsy Sanz, a litigation fellow with the Institute for Justice, said: "We look forward to standing up for these property owners in their fight against this unconstitutional land grab."

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