Ask anybody whose driveway crosses the railroad tracks along Highway 11 and you will get an earful about the joys attendant upon that condition:
The abruptly-ended phone conversations when a train roars by; the interrupted television viewing; the way the pictures on the wall never hang quite straight; and, above all, the apoplexy-making frustration of being blocked in when you’ve got somewhere to go or blocked out when you’re yearning for home and hearth, because a train has seen fit to park a few hours on the tracks in front of your house.
Now railroad company Norfolk Southern seems to have added a new item to that litany of woes:
“Based on our research, there is not a legal document covering your use. As a result, a crossing agreement is needed.”
So reads an Oct. 5 letter from the Pennsylvania-based rail company, offering Rising Fawn residents the privilege of continuing to use their driveways provided they sign away any right to sue the railroad for virtually any reason, keep vegetation trimmed back to maintain visibility, and monitor any guests who cross the tracks to visit them to make sure they don’t foul the tracks.
“Licensee agrees to release, indemnify and save harmless Railway, its officers, agents and employees, from and against all loss, damage, expense (including attorneys’ fees) or cost for personal injuries (including death) and/or property damage occurring or arising in any manner from the use of, existence of, or railway operations at or in the vicinity of, the Crossing,” ends paragraph 4 of the agreement, a clause that one of the letter’s Rising Fawn recipients found particularly offensive.
“There’s nothing fair about it,” said County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, whose home lies at the end of a long gravel driveway off Highway 11 in Rising Fawn. “They’re the ones that cut our property off from civilization. Now they’re telling us, after 100-plus years, we’ve got to have permission from them to cross at our crossing, and take all the liability for their train if it hits a car? It’s crazy. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The county boss was speaking after the regular November Dade County Commission meeting on Thursday night. He had received a copy of the Norfolk Southern letter in his capacity as a private homeowner whose driveway crosses the tracks, but had brought it up at the county meeting because several of his south Dade neighbors had gotten it, too. The Planet checked with sources in parts north and found that Wildwood homeowners were also receiving the letter.
The Norfolk Southern tracks run north/south alongside Highway 11 through Dade from the Tennessee state line to the Alabama border and beyond, and driveways lead over the tracks to private homes all along the way.
“There’s no telling how many there are between here and Birmingham,” said Rumley.
The Boss said he’d checked with County Attorney Robin Rogers, who had told him the agreement might be reasonable in the case of new construction, when a homeowner was applying for the right to build a driveway over the tracks. “But these are grandfathered,” said Rumley. “These properties have been here forever.”
Rumley said the access to his own property, for example, had existed before the Civil War, long before the train tracks were laid. He said he wouldn’t sign the agreement and would hire an attorney if necessary.
The Planet also consulted Robin Rogers, who indicated there wasn’t much the county could do for residents in their dealings with the railroad; the driveways are not county roads but private property. But as to the proposed agreement, the ever-circumspect county attorney did add the uncharacteristically bold declaration: “I don’t know that I would sign that.”
Will other Dade residents have to sign the Norfolk Southern agreement in order to continue leaving their homes in the morning and driving back in the evening? If not, will each have to hire a private attorney?
That remains unclear. Ted Rumley said he’d consulted a railroad government relations official who had promised to call him back next week.
Meanwhile, The Dade Planet has also requested comment from Norfolk Southern, specifically as to what happens if residents don’t sign the agreement, and The Planet will duly report such information as emerges as a result of its inquiries.