Texas: Vulcan subsidiary uses condemnation to get rail line

A Vulcan Materials subsidiary has moved to condemn the few remaining parcels of land needed for a railroad spur to carry rock from a company quarry north of Dunlay, Texas, to existing tracks beside US 90.

Three of the 20 owners of land along the Southwest Gulf Railroad Co’s proposed 9-mile route have not voluntarily provided the necessary easements, said company officials last week, noting that no buildings are in the path of the spur they hope to put into service next year.

The holdouts now targeted by condemnation suits decry the anticipated loss of their land and peace of mind, blaming a federal designation of the Southwest Gulf Railroad spur as “a common carrier” – meaning other shippers can use it – which came with a grant of eminent domain authority.

Loss of property value is also a major concern among locals anywhere close to the rail spur planned through ranch land and scrub brush to the 1,760-acre Vulcan site outside Quihi.

Medina County Environmental Action Association, a grassroots group which opposed the quarry and rail plan in court, fears the limestone quarry and related activities will foul the air and groundwater, and endanger motorists at grade-level rail crossings on local roads.

The association dropped its fight against the quarry receiving a state permit after Vulcan agreed in 2006 to leave a vegetative buffer around the eventual 600-acre dig site, among other concessions. It fought on against the spur, but the US Surface Transportation Board in 2008 granted Southwest Gulf Railroad permission to build and operate it as a “common carrier” rail line.

In 2010, the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision and rejected the group’s call for additional environmental studies, but the recession stalled the project.

The use of eminent domain is necessary to overcome restrictive covenants jointly entered by 43 property owners along potential spur routes, which barred rail construction on their collective 9,622 acres.

Aylene Fitzgerald, the leader of the environmental action association, doubts that any other companies will use the spur. He called decisions in the forthcoming condemnation cases “potentially precedent-setting.”

“The right to private property ownership is the cherished heritage passed down to us by the early settlers of the Republic of Texas,” she said in a media statement. “No one’s land is safe from confiscation if Vulcan and its paper railroad prevail.”

Scott Burnham, spokesman for the railroad company that has no other operations, said it’s actively marketing the planned spur, but noted, “For a railroad, it’s hard to have customers without a track.”

He said the Surface Transportation Board conducted a lengthy and rigorous review before determining the rail project was in the public interest and granted common carrier status.

“We are committed to Medina County and are dedicated to creating jobs, economic development and tax revenue,” Burnham said last week.

Even though Southwest Gulf Railroad only wants to condemn three parcels, he said all of the covenant-signers were named as necessary parties in the condemnation suits.

Medina County Judge Chris Schuchart, who was Vulcan’s local attorney before taking office 14 months ago, sees county commissioners’ primary role as ensuring public safety around rail crossings.

“I’m staying out of the fight because I’m conflicted across the board,” he said.

San Antonia Express News

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