Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Secret Deals Between Jefferson County Government and The Railroad

Several citizens groups have formed to halt the plan to construct a Norfolk-Southern rail and truck facility, though the reporting via today's Knoxville News Sentinel pretty much implies the residents are out of luck and their county's landscape will be forever changed.

So far, the Powers That Be have excluded local residents from having any voice in this project, a tactic which serves only to alienate and anger residents -- isn't it time these kind of secret government-business deals end once and for all??

The KNS report by Ed Marcum says:

"Upset that local officials have signed confidentiality agreements with the railroad company and that the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce has excluded them from a meeting with Norfolk Southern, about 10-12 people have formed Jefferson County Tomorrow to take action.

They have set up a Web site, are arranging to get help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, are talking with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, distributing letters to property owners, collecting names on a petition and looking into legal options - all toward stopping a Norfolk Southern facility they say would take out a three-mile swath of farmland along Highway 11E in New Market.

"The point is this thing is growing," Alex Miller, a Jefferson County Tomorrow organizer, said of the group. "It is not going away, we are going to fight this to the very last minute. We will take this all the way, and Norfolk Southern and the county and the state need to understand that this is our homes we are protecting."

Summing up the group's concerns, Miller said it made no sense to put a huge industrial facility in the middle of prime farmland adjacent to an elementary school and next to railroad tracks but about 10 miles from Interstate 40 and in a county that already is in air pollution non-attainment from vehicle emissions.

Norfolk Southern proposes to build a $60 million intermodal facility on 280 acres along Highway 11E next to New Market Elementary School. Such a facility would allow trucks to bring in trailers or cargo containers that could be loaded onto flatbed railroad cars for shipment across great distances. The proposed facility would handle about 180 trailers or containers a day, plus about 67 additional trucks without separate trailers. Studies have projected it could be an economic engine for Jefferson County and East Tennessee, generating 1,801 jobs in New Market by 2020 and 2,600 to 2,700 jobs in Jefferson County by 2025.

But the way officials have handled the issue rankles many people, members of the group say.

Harvey Young said about a week ago Jefferson County's Chamber of Commerce held an informational meeting with Norfolk Southern officials. About seven members of Jefferson County Tomorrow tried to attend but were turned away by a law enforcement officer, Young said.

"They told us this meeting was by invitation only," he said.

Another issue is the confidentiality agreements some officials signed with Norfolk Southern, stirring concern about government secrecy. One of the public officials who signed a confidentiality agreement was Phil Kindred, Jefferson County Commission chairman and a commissioner in the district where the proposed facility would be built.

In a July newsletter to constituents, Kindred said that in October 2007, Norfolk Southern asked him and others on a county task force to sign a "confidentiality letter" about the project. Other officials included Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri, Appalachian Electric Cooperative representatives Bill Underwood and Greg Williams, Industrial Development Board representative Ed Stiner, Chamber of Commerce President Eli Matijevich and Chamber Executive Director Don Cason.

Kindred said other residents also have signed agreements, bringing the total number to about 17.

The letter prohibited signers from sharing information until a decision was made to release a public announcement, Kindred said. Initially he was reluctant to sign, but he felt he would be able to learn more about a project that could have a huge impact on the county, he said.

Task force members believed a public statement would be forthcoming, releasing them from their pledge of silence, but the slowing economy caused the process to drag on, Kindred said.

"Although the local task force members felt an urgent need to inform the community and our Industrial Board, the process never seemed to reach that point and ultimately some of the information was 'leaked' to New Market residents," he wrote.

Leaked information prompted a July 2 public meeting at Jefferson Middle School. There, Palmieri confirmed he had signed the agreement and said he had also signed agreements for a NASCAR speed park complex, an amusement park and other proposals that never became public issues because they fell through. To jeers from the crowd at the public meeting, Palmieri said he has not withheld any information from the public.

Jefferson County Tomorrow members John Kramer and Jennifer Nicely wrote the mayor for copies of the confidentiality agreement, but received letters from Jefferson County's attorney, S. Douglas Drinnon, saying they were not available.

"I understand that the document you requested is not in the possession or custody of the Jefferson County mayor or any governmental agency of Jefferson County," Drinnon wrote. He did not return a call Tuesday for comment.

Miller said the group has been told that Norfolk Southern has all copies of the agreement. The group contacted Norfolk Southern but the company would not release any of those copies, he said."


You can contact the Jefferson County government offices via their web page.
You can contact the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce via their web page.

3 comments:

alstroemeria said...

As an environmentalist, I support rail over tuck traffic. But placing this industrial site on productive agricultural land flies in the face of every conceivable best practice in quality growth or sustainable development currently accepted across this country and around the globe. It's utter madness to give up the ecosystem services green space offers our county at no cost and the food and fiber production potential it offers to the entire country. Anyone who feels ag land is not vital must just not eat or breathe.

Anonymous said...

I grew up about 5 miles from New Market school, and saying the loss of this farmland is reason enough not to move forward with this project is absurd. It's owned by 1 or 2 families, provides no taxes for the county, and no additional jobs. After losing out on projects to Greene and Hamblen counties, both of which have greatly helped the economies there through taxes, you would think people would wake up and be excited about this opportunity. At a time when the county is running at a budget deficit, and needs money for new school construction, the fact this has become such an issue shows why the county will never prosper...

Anonymous said...

I grew up about 5 miles from the New Market school, and the fact people are talking about the loss of farmland as an issue here is absurd. This isn't "prime" farmland, as it's only owned by a few families and runs adjacent to the 4-lane. This is simply an example of some people not wanting to move forward, and as we've seen on previous missed opportunities(when firms went to Greene & Hamblen counties), the potential benefits far outweighed any of the concerns that were supplied as to why the county shouldn't move forward.

The county needs new jobs created, money for new school construction, and tax revenue to help with social programs, and this depot would help on all of those fronts.

I'm no sure the politicians will do what's best for the county b/c of the noise coming from a few contituents, but if that ends up being the case, it will be incredibly sad and short-sighted...