Georgia Families Refuse to be Railroaded Off Their Land

William R. Maurer
William R. Maurer  ·  August 1, 2023

Sparta, Georgia, holds deep roots for the families who call the small town “home.” Don and Sally Garrett live on land that has been in Don’s family since the 1800s. The nearby Smith property was once part of the Dixon cotton plantation, where Helen Smith’s mother was born a slave. Helen and her husband, James, bought the property in the 1920s and passed it down to members of their family, including Blaine and Diane Smith and Marvin and Pat Smith. The Garrett and Smith properties offer tranquility, opportunities for hunting and fishing, and a source of revenue in the pine trees that grow there.

But now all of this is at risk. A private railroad, the Sandersville Railroad Company, wants to use eminent domain to condemn portions of up to 18 properties in Sparta—including the Garretts’, the Smiths’, and others—to build a spur linking a private quarry to a railroad line outside of town. The spur will bisect the properties, effectively marooning portions of the land. The track will destroy the families’ peace and ruin their dream of passing the properties down to the next generation.

Watch case video here!

Unlike governmental entities, Sandersville Railroad cannot simply condemn the Garrett and Smith properties—it must first get the permission of the Georgia Public Service Commission. But families who have lived in Sparta for generations don’t want to stake their legacies on the whims of bureaucrats. Represented by IJ, the Garretts, the Smiths, and their neighbors are now fighting back.

The Garretts, the Smiths, and the other property owners have a right to keep their land, use it as they want, and leave it to their children. Georgia delegates the power of eminent domain to private railroad companies only when they act as public utilities—meaning only when they provide service to all members of the public. They cannot take land just because they are railroads. In Sparta, a private railroad and a private quarry would be the primary (if not the only) users of the new track—and under Georgia law, helping private companies make more money is not a public use.

We know because IJ helped enact that law. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, IJ led efforts to tighten protections against eminent domain abuse. Those efforts resulted in substantive reforms in 47 states, including Georgia. While those reforms have significantly restrained the use of eminent domain to benefit private entities, the practice has not stopped altogether. Would-be-condemnors now try to cloak private takings in the garb of legitimate condemnations when the real purpose is simply to benefit a private business.

That is what is happening here. But private takings masquerading as the legitimate use of eminent domain are just as wrong, illegal, and unconstitutional as any other eminent domain abuse. That is why the Garretts, the Smiths, and other Sparta property owners have teamed up with IJ to tell the Georgia Public Service Commission that their land belongs to them, not Sandersville Railroad.

Bill Maurer is managing attorney of IJ’s Washington office.

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