Norfolk Southern's Surprise Development

How do you "sneak" an intermodal terminal into a farming community?

In May of this year, New Market residents learned that some of their neighbors had been offered options to sell their land to a recently formed company with ties to Norfolk Southern railroad. Subsequently, plans for an intermodal rail facility to be built in New Market were leaked. (If you were a semi-sized travel container and considered highway travel by truck as one mode and rail travel as another, an intermodal facility is where you'd switch between the two. The intermodal in Front Royal, Va., also goes by the name of "Inland Port.") Portions of the plan, developed without public knowledge or input, are dated from 2007.

Over the course of the spring and summer, it became clear that Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri, County Commissioner Phil Kindred, and others entered into confidentiality agreements with Norfolk Southern. In some ways the conflict is emerging as pro-development vs. anti-development; NS promises $1 billion in economic impact between 2010 and 2020, while the USDA says that in 2007 alone Jefferson County farmland—a good portion of which may soon be parked under a rail yard—produced nearly $30 million worth of products, etc. In other ways, it appears to be an egregious breach of trust by elected county and locally appointed officials. Lawmakers willing to go on record tend to speak softly or vaguely in order to avoid being tattooed in the event of results other than those they've favored. At root, a neighboring county that has lost over half of its farmland in the last half-century may soon lose 4 to 6 percent of what remains, while brownfields in nearby Hamblen County beg for creative re-use.

Jefferson Countians opposed to the rail yard made a presentation to their county commissioners last week. Commissioners, perhaps dreaming of ribbon-cuttings and gold-shovel ground-breaking photo ops, were alerted to their responsibilities, such as existing-road closings and new-road financing, should the proposed development move forward. They were also alerted by their constituents of voters' power to dissent. For County Commission and the mayor in Jefferson County, next year is an election year. In the words of one farmer, regardless of whether or not they have a new rail yard next year, they will have a new government.

As this story goes to press, multiple sources contend that no recipient of an option to sell has chosen to do so.