Move hints at North Charleston Rail Compromise

By David Slade , Yvonne Wenger

The S.C. Division of Public Railways has dropped its effort to seize some of the Noisette Co.’s land on the former Navy base in North Charleston, where the state agency is planning over the city’s objections to run a rail line to a future port terminal.

One lawmaker immersed in the controversy sees it as a sign that compromise talks are gaining steam.

Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the state’s Port Oversight Committee, said he has not talked with the S.C. Commerce Department-run Public Railways about abandoning the condemnation effort.

But Grooms added, “I do believe when you drop your effort to condemn a certain parcel of land when your plan was supposed to be that, negotiations are continuing.”

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said talks aimed at seeking a compromise have been ongoing and should resume after Tuesday’s city elections. Summey, who has blasted the rail plan, is seeking re-election.

“We’re getting closer,” Summey said. “There’s always room for compromise, if you can get everyone to the table.”

He said the larger issue of rail access to the new port remains unresolved, and a city lawsuit aimed at blocking the deal continues.

The state said it still is pursuing its rail plan, but is modifying the route. The proposal includes running rail access to the future port at the south end of the base from the north end, which Summey and other opponents have said would harm redevelopment efforts around Park Circle by sending freight trains through the area.

The withdrawal of the condemnation means the rail line would no longer go through the Charleston Naval Hospital Historic District on the former base. The land in question measures just over 3 acres along St. Johns Avenue.

The state’s decision to drop its condemnation efforts on that tract was filed with the court this week.

“Railways has recently abandoned the condemnation of one parcel of property located in the Charleston Naval Hospital Historic District to attempt to develop a feasible alternative to that portion of the rail plan,” Commerce spokeswoman Amy Love said in written statement.

She added that “this action in no way diminishes South Carolina Public Railways’ commitment” to ensuring access to the region’s two private rail operators at a proposed facility on the base where containers would be transferred between ships and trains.

Summey and Grooms both indicated Thursday that a solution may be getting closer, but the key point of contention — bringing in rail from the north end of the old base — remains.

“With or without that parcel, the Department of Commerce plan would be to run some rail out of the northern end of the base,” Grooms said.

The so-called “dual access” plan the state is promoting is meant to assure that Norfolk Southern and CSX each have competitive access to the new port.

Gov. Nikki Haley said she has made it clear to Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt that she wants to see the rail controversy resolved.

“He knows that I want it done yesterday and I want a resolution done yesterday, and what he has assured me is that the conversations have been productive and we will see some results,” she said.

Jeff Baxter of Noisette Co. called the latest legal development “perplexing,” because an appraiser hired by the state had met with company officials just a day before the court filing that nixed the condemnation effort. The move hasn’t been explained to the company, he said.

“We’re happy that (the rail line) is not going through that property, and we’ll relist those properties for sale,” he said.

With with the threat of condemnation removed, Baxter said the company will resume planning to redevelop the former hospital as office space, and will market the three houses on the adjacent property and several parcels of vacant land.

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