To extend the Chief Ladia Trail into downtown Anniston, city officials recently looked back 13 years before the first shot was fired in the Civil War.
That’s as far back as the city's legal argument goes in a request to the Alabama Department of Transportation sent in July to approve Anniston’s plan to extend the popular cycling and pedestrian path.
That’s also when, in 1848, Alabama granted a charter to the Alabama and Tennessee Railroad Company to build a rail line from the Alabama River in Selma to the Coosa River in Gadsden. Plans later changed, and the route shifted from Gadsden to the Georgia line.
The 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail currently ends at Michael Tucker Park, just inside the city limits. Plans call for the trail to extend 7 miles farther south to the Amtrak station at Fourth Street.
But to extend the trail the city must get approval from ALDOT for a right-of-way plan along the corridor. Once approved, the city must have the former rail line appraised, then negotiate a deal with Norfolk Southern Railroad, which owns much of the land, and with the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board. In February 2014 the water board paid $26,995 to Norfolk Southern for approximately 5 miles of the former tracks from Glade Road to 25th Street.
In a letter to ALDOT on July 28, which The Star obtained through an open records request, city officials argue that owners of property that abut the abandoned tracks do not have legal claim to the former rail line, and that Norfolk Southern still does, even though it legally abandoned the line years ago.
The city’s letter to ALDOT states that since at least 1870 Norfolk Southern and the company’s predecessors have owned the title to the land outright “via adverse possession,” which according to state law means a person or entity must own land continuously for at least 10 years to obtain ownership of the title.
“And the city has not uncovered any evidence suggesting or proving that NSR has been dispossessed of its long-claimed interest,” the city’s letter states, referring to Norfolk Southern Railroad by its initials.
The former railroad track’s beginnings predate Anniston founder Sam Noble’s purchase of the land that would become the city.
Toby Bennington, Anniston’s director of economic development and planning, said ALDOT asked the city to research five parcels of land along the former track as far back as records exist to determine for certain that none of the property owners with land that abuts the former track could claim ownership.
“The city’s title search took into account the presumed destruction of courthouse records by federal troops during the Civil War,” the city’s letter states. “Still, nothing was found that shed light or cast doubt on NSR’s interest in the property. In fact, each title examination showed the boundaries of the abutting parcels ending at the boundary of the railroad ROW.”
Additionally, the city’s argument is that Norfolk Southern in 2014 sold a portion of the former track to the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board by stating that Norfolk could do so because the company owned the land through adverse possession.
A second chance
Anniston’s attempt to buy the land and extend the trail isn’t the city’s first. In 2009 a former city attorney told The Star that Norfolk Southern asked for $2.2 million for the abandoned line, which the city quickly declined.
Later, Norfolk Southern dropped the asking price to $400,000 but only if the city agreed to close the F Street crossing, according to the former city attorney in 2009. Doing so would have isolated a part of the Anniston, a city official told The Star at the time.
But it was more than just the asking price and request to close the F Street crossing that ended Anniston’s earlier efforts. The city and Norfolk Southern beginning in 2006 were involved in an process with the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that reviews proposed track abandonments for potential use as recreational trails, among other uses.
On Feb. 8, 2006, the city applied to the board to use the former tracks as a recreational trail, which started a 180-day window for Anniston to negotiate the land deal with Norfolk Southern, according to board records. Failing to make an agreement during that time meant the rail company could move forward with abandonment.
The Surface Transportation Board later extended Anniston’s deadline several times, but Anniston’s time eventually ran out, according to an order filed on March 20, 2009, which effectively ended STB’s involvement, leaving the matter to the city and to Norfolk Southern to sort out.
“This would have been a much simpler process had the city worked this out with Norfolk Southern prior to the abandonment,” Bennington said.
In the years since, however, city officials have kept pushing forward with plans to extend the trail into Anniston.
The Calhoun Area Metropolitan Planning Organization since 2014 has awarded the city about $520,000 in federal money to buy land to extend the trail, Bennington said. If the land appraises for less and a deal is reached, the city can ask the MPO for permission to use the remaining money for trail paving, he said.
And city officials and attorneys did the research, pouring through deeds, property records and railroad archives that predate Anniston’s incorporation in 1883.
Bennington said the city has met with ALDOT numerous times in recent years as the two entities work through the process and the meetings have been productive. They'll meet again in the next few weeks, he said, to discuss the city’s request to approve the project. He’s optimistic that Anniston has done its homework and the plan is on solid legal ground.
“That’s what we’re confident in,” Bennington said.
As for the other owner of former track land, the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board has been in discussion with the city over a possible land deal for several years, and those talks continue.
“That's been ongoing for many ,many years,” said Ed Turner, general manager for the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board, speaking Friday. “And we’re working really hard to finalize it. We’ve got a plan to move forward.”
It’s hard to say when all this work could result in freshly poured asphalt. Bennington said that depends upon several agreements yet made, but the city is doing all it can to make it happen, he said, and so are the other parties.
“Everyone knows that this project is extremely beneficial to the city,” Bennington said.