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Covington commissioners discuss Rails to Trails partnership

The Covington County Commission continues to discuss joining a regional partnership aimed at exploring a possible Rails to Trails program.

During a commission meeting Tuesday, Dist. 92 State Representative Mike Jones spoke about the Wiregrass Trails Partnership, which will be made up of representatives from across the three-county area with the purpose of researching the Rail to Trail program.

“The first step in this process is to get organized so that we can all come to the table so that we can learn more and share that information with our constituents. The preliminary meetings will be to gauge interest,” Jones said.

Jones also said an early step should include visiting Rails to Trails already established.

“We should visit these other trails to gain knowledge from their experience; look at what they did right and learn from their mistakes. It’s too early to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the trail right now … we need more information,” Jones said.

At least three commissioners said they have been contacted by property owners who have voiced concerns about the trail.

“I’ve spoken to people who are for it and against it. Those who are for it do not own property (along the rail line) and those against it do. I know if I had property there I would have concerns too,” said Dist. 3 Commissioner Tony Holmes.

“What we are talking about raises big questions for those who own property in these rural areas,” Dist. 1 Commissioners Kenneth Northey said.

There was also a concern regarding the verbiage in the partnership resolution where they said the wording ‘support of the partnership’ could be misconstrued as support for moving the trail program forward.

Dist. 2 Commissioner Michael Smith added that he would need more information before agreeing to join the partnership, possibly bringing in an expert who assisted other communities who established a Rails to Trails program.

“We are literally in the very first steps,” Jones said. “At this point, we don’t have the data, but that’s what we need to do … get the data so we can bring it back to our constituents. We have to start somewhere and this gets us all in the same spot to learn the facts.”

Jones said in his research on Rails to Trails, communities are seeing financial success.

“One of the reasons to support the trail is that there is a three- to four-year return on investment. That’s phenomenal and would have an economic impact for those towns it goes through. About 100,000 people per year are visiting these trails and they tend to spend money in the communities they visit.”

Commission Chairman Greg White said the Wiregrass Trails Partnership is being established to find out whether a Rails to Trails program is the right fit for Covington County.

“The group we are being asked to join is designed to take the lead in getting information and holding public hearings,” White said.

Ultimately, Dist. 4 Commissioner Tommy McGaha made a motion to join the partnership, but that motion died due to lack of a second. The commission agreed to work toward meeting with the trails program expert and rephrasing certain language in the resolution, possibly bringing it back for discussion at a future commission meeting.

The 43-mile stretch of rail line in consideration is owned by CSX. The proposed trail would travel through Andalusia, Opp and Kinston before ending in Geneva. The City of Andalusia voted last week to implement a Capital Improvement Cooperative District in support of the rails to trails program and could receive a $400,000 grant through the Federal Highway Administration’s Recreational Trails Program.

Other items discussed by the commission included:

  • approving the county’s participation in the Emergency Preparedness Tax Holiday, scheduled for the weekend of Feb. 26-28. Consumers will not be charged taxes on items, including batteries, certain radios, flashlights and lanterns, plywood, non-electric food and water storage, fire extinguishers and smoke detectors ($60 or less per item). Portable generators up to $1,000 are also included.
  • rejecting a bid for two sheriff patrol cars due to concerns of how the bid was submitted. The vehicles will be rebid.
  • awarding bids for seed, fertilizer and steel piling.
  • approving bids for a metal detector with temperature scanner at approximately $3,000 as well as a dual view X-ray screening system at $352,000. The items are being purchased with CARES Act funds.
  • approving out-of-state travel for members of the sheriff’s office to attend training in Gulfport, Mississippi.
  • approving an emergency purchase of heavy equipment tires.
  • approving the county’s Emergency Management Agency to proceed with filing for a grant.
  • The commission and Sheriff Blake Turman agreed to discuss prior to the next commission meeting the proposed purchase of new deputy body camera and taser equipment.