Fayette County Land Closer to Becoming Rail Hub

By Eric Smith

SITE WORK: The new Norfolk Southern Corp. intermodal facility in Fayette County will be situated on land owned by William Adair, who has a contract with the railroad. The roughly 500-acre facility will be south of Tenn. 57, west of Knox Road. A few more hurdles need to be cleared before the project can begin, including a second annexation reading, rezoning and the building of track to connect the main rail line with the yard. -- IMAGE COURTESY OF WCA LAND & DEVELOPMENT

Norfolk Southern Corp.’s plan to develop a multimillion-dollar, multi-acre intermodal facility in Fayette County cleared a political hurdle Thursday night, moving the massive project one step closer to reality.

During the first reading for annexation of land where the proposed rail yard will sit, Rossville’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously voted for the city to annex unincorporated property owned by former insurance mogul William Adair.

The board will hold a second annexation reading July 13, coupled with a vote to rezone the land from residential to light industrial. They also scheduled a Planning Commission meeting for July 6 to determine how to deliver services such as electricity, water and sewer to the site.

Three representatives from Norfolk, Va.-based Norfolk Southern, including executives from the railroad’s real estate and intermodal divisions, attended Thursday’s meeting, although none of them spoke publicly.

After the event, however, Norfolk Southern vice president of business development Robert Martinez discussed the night’s events. He told The Daily News he hoped a zoning discussion would be held Thursday, but he nonetheless was pleased with reaching this milestone and is looking forward to achieving the next steps in July.

“I think they did what they needed to do,” Martinez said. “Right now we’re on track.”

Bucolic preservation

At least one other question was answered Thursday night. Adair told The Daily News he is officially under contract to sell about 500 of his 3,200 acres to the railroad, whose intermodal terminal will sit between Piperton and Rossville, south of Tenn. 57 and north of the Tennessee-Mississippi state line.

Adair said the contract was signed about six weeks ago, but a confidentiality clause kept him from confirming the deal. Though Adair declined to disclose the terms of the contract, he said his property and smaller parcels of adjoining land that connect the yard with the rail line – north of Tenn. 57 – would soon be sold to Norfolk Southern.

“All the properties are under contract, and we are moving forward,” Adair said. “This is one of the final steps here, to get it zoned. I think the railroad is trying to do the right thing. The railroad could have run roughshod over these people.”

Adair, who was born and raised in Fayette County and attended Collierville High School, sold the company he founded, Direct General Insurance Co., a few years ago for more than $600 million. In 2007 he paid $28 million for the sprawling county acreage known as Twin Hill Ranch, most of which he plans to develop into a mixed-use subdivision called Piperton Hills.

His property arose as a potential spot for the railroad’s intermodal yard after Fayette County residents rejected – en masse – Norfolk Southern’s original site selection between Rossville and Moscow, north of Tenn. 57 near the Wolf River.

Known as the “Windyke” site because the owners of Windyke Country Club in Memphis hoped to develop a golf course there, the land was ideal for the railroad because of its proximity to the rail line.

But it also was near the Wolf River and would have relied on the two-lane Tenn. 57 for truck traffic, sparking fears among Rossville and Piperton residents that their communities would turn into another Lamar Avenue or Shelby Drive.

That’s when Adair stepped up and offered his land for the yard. Set away from most homes, it allows truck traffic to spill out south of the site onto the four-lane U.S. 72. So far, it’s the most widely accepted option.

“Before we ever signed a contract, we had a meeting with all my neighbors, and I can say that 100 percent of my neighbors voted for us to sign the contract and put it on our property,” Adair said. “It was not our desire to put it on there to start with, but it’s the right thing for Rossville and Piperton.”

Coming through

Norfolk Southern is pursuing the site because it wants to beef up its rail and intermodal presence here as part of the Crescent Corridor, a $2.5 billion public-private partnership that connects the southeastern and northeastern U.S. via an extensive rail network.

The Memphis area, already blessed with robust freight service as one of just three cities with five Class I railroads, will serve as a key component of the corridor. The railroad’s goal is to take 1 million long-haul trucks off interstates, namely I-40 and I-81, which don’t have parallel rail lines.

Norfolk Southern’s current intermodal facility is housed on 50 landlocked acres at its Forrest Yard near the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Though Memphis leaders wanted the railroad to build a new terminal at Frank S. Pidgeon Industrial Park, near Downtown, the railroad ruled out that site earlier this year because it seemed logistically difficult to reach the site from its line.

Fayette County made the most sense because of available land and because it puts trains closer to their eastbound outlets.

Martinez said the next step for Norfolk Southern, besides a second reading of the annexation plan, is the proper zoning.

“We need to make sure the zoning is done correctly so that the region can benefit from the opportunity of having a Crescent Corridor terminal here,” Martinez said. “The zoning is so critical. It really kicks off the 13th of July and hopefully will be completed soon thereafter. And that will dictate whether or not Mr. Adair will be able to pursue the very positive business development that will allow the region to benefit from the availability of an integrated logistics business park.”

Lesser of the evils

Little to no opposition was expressed at Thursday’s meeting, though about 30 people showed up to hear the Mayor and Board of Aldermen discuss the area that will be annexed. A resident of Saunders Creek, a subdivision south of Tenn. 57 in Rossville, voiced support for the site.

Another resident who lives on Knox Road raised a concern about the annexation area. He and his wife want their 19-acre property to be annexed and remain residentially zoned.

While some Fayette County citizens do object in principle to an intermodal terminal in their backyard – saying they’d rather see the intermodal yard in Idaho, Texas or even Siberia – the Adair property has been unequivocally accepted over the Windyke site.

“Anybody with any sense at all wouldn’t want it up there,” said Rossville Mayor James Gaither. “This is the lesser of two evils. I don’t like either one of them, but there ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

Buck Clark, president of the South Fayette Alliance, the nonprofit group formed last year to oppose the railroad’s plans to build at Windyke, said the alliance a few weeks ago decided it would back the Adair property.

After “some back and forth,” the alliance in late May formally adopted a position to endorse the Adair site with a host of conditions: All the truck traffic must go south, Knox and Neville roads need to be protected; an overpass on Tenn. 57 needs to be built and the yard must have a low profile, including berms to absorb noise and lower light poles.

Those issues will be hammered out and should be cleared up in the coming weeks.

“We’re coming along,” said Clark, whose property is near the intermodal site. “We’re getting somewhere. Not sure where, but somewhere.”

For more on this story, see the March 18 and May 15 editions of The Daily News at www.memphisdailynews.com.