Ridgeway must now pay for access to Cotton Yard

RIDGEWAY – The town council of Ridgeway learned last week that it must pay a lease fee to access the town’s own Cotton Yard it purchased earlier this year, essentially making its purchase and control over the property a hollow accomplishment.

According to information presented during the town council meeting on Nov. 8, the town received an invoice from Norfolk Southern Railroad in the amount of $320. Mayor Heath Cookendorfer told council that upon his request for further explanation of the invoice, he was told that the town is being required to enter into a leasing agreement with the railroad every year from now on to gain access to the Cotton Yard which the town purchased in May at the price of $80,000.

Whether attorney Kathleen McDaniels, who handled the closing on the property for the Town, knew at the time of the purchase that the easement was not included in the property purchase is now a hot subject of inquiry for the town.

“This is a situation where we kind of all inherited this issue, so at this point in time I am going to go to the next level to find out why this information was not a part of the (purchase) discussion,” Cookendorfer stated Thursday night.

The purchase of the .6 acre cotton yard property was a process begun in 2014 by former mayor Charlene Herring. For decades, the town was allowed unrestricted use of the cotton yard, but in 2014, Herring began corresponding with Norfolk Southern about the limitations of its use – without the approval of town council.

Through the course of 2014 through 2016, Herring contacted the railroad directly regarding a sod truck and several ‘for sale’ vehicles that parked on the property. All contact made by Herring was done against the advice of council, actions that were repeatedly condemned by the panel.

Because one such user of the property was Rufus Jones, a former political opponent of Herring’s, some openly questioned the motives of Herring’s contact with the railroad. Herring, however, said at the time that she had received questions from members of the community about the vehicles parking on the lot.

Despite warnings from then-council member Cookendorfer and others on council that Herring was “poking a sleeping giant” by making repeated contact with the railroad about the property, Herring continued.

In 2016, railroad officials responded to the town with an ultimatum; purchase or get off the property. Norfolk Southern threatened to install a fence to ensure the town could not utilize the property without purchasing it.

With only three votes from the five-member council in favor of the motion, Herring pushed forward with the purchase just weeks before the election for a new mayor.

The total cost of the property included approximately $20,000 in survey costs and legal fees which were paid by the town to McDaniels to close the deal. Cookendorfer told the Voice that his office will be drafting a letter to send to McDaniels for clarification on the purchase details.

In addition, the town has yet to receive the deed to the property, something that McDaniels had said the council would have further information on within 30 days after closing in June. Cookendorfer said his letter to McDaniels would request information on both issues.