Tar Heel Tattler - November 2006

Owners fear being tithed to the tracks
By Frank Maley

Dené Rich has a message for The North Carolina Railroad Co.: “I am not stupid.” Certainly not stupid enough to pay the railroad rent for property she says she, her husband and uncle own — site of a Sprinkle Gas station — within 100 feet of the tracks along Market Street in Greensboro. “You know the old phrase, ‘You’ve been railroaded’? It has quite a bit of significance to me now.”

North Carolina Railroad executives say they’re just trying to protect the rail corridor from more than a century of encroachment. They say the railroad’s 1849 charter gives it ownership of 100 feet on both sides of the track from Morehead City to Charlotte. It leased the corridor in the late 1800s to a predecessor of Norfolk Southern, which allowed other land owners to nibble into the right of way, President Scott Saylor says. Now a state-controlled real-estate investment trust, North Carolina Railroad took more responsibility for managing the corridor after Norfolk Southern’s lease ended in 1999 and the two companies signed a more-limited track-usage deal.

A state law passed in 2000 allows North Carolina Railroad to lease, license or improve the property. Since then, it has been trying to license property owners along the tracks, make them pay rent and carry liability insurance.

Opponents say the railroad doesn’t own the property, just the right to use it. Saylor says Norfolk Southern, under the 1999 agreement, pays property taxes on the land. But so do the Riches and Pete Goria, who owns four tracts that abut the track in Greensboro. “If we’ve been paying tax and the railroad has been paying tax,” Goria says, “it seems like these counties are going to owe a lot of rebates.”

Maybe not. The railroad is billed by the state Department of Revenue, says Francis Kinlaw, Guilford County’s interim tax director. His office bases billings on descriptions contained in deeds. A property owner who improperly recorded a deed might not bedue a refund.

Goria has formed an opposition group. “I told Scott Saylor, ‘Look, we’re small people compared with the state and the North Carolina Railroad. But together we can fight you, because we can take all our money and pool it together. And we will do that if we have to.’”