AURORA — The city and FirstEnergy Corp. are playing a waiting game to see which one likely will take over 5.5 miles of Norfolk Southern rail line right-of-way which runs through town.

Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin said until the Surface Transportation Board acts on NS’s application to abandon the stretch of track, the city cannot proceed with attempts to acquire the right-of-way. "We’re monitoring the situation daily," the mayor said.

She said city officials expected a decision from the STB in July, but some historic aspects along the stretch of track — such as the restored depot being used by Demming Financial Services — has delayed final action.

Which one of the entities acquires the right-of-way ultimately could result in a legal battle.

In late May, City Council adopted a resolution declaring the city’s intention to appropriate the railroad route to create a public park and trail. That gives the city authority to pursue acquiring the railroad bed in court.

Womer Benjamin said the city has hired outside counsel with experience in utility and eminent domain issues to assist Law Director Dean DePiero in the legal battle.

FirstEnergy public relations spokesman Doug Colafella said the electric company wants to run a 69-kilovolt line along the old rail line to enhance electric service for some 13,000 customers.

"These would not be huge steel lattice towers," he said. "They would be 60- to 70-foot wooden poles. This improved service would go a long way toward avoiding lengthy power outages such as what occurred during last November’s windstorm."

He said the railroad bed would have the least impact on the community, and the firm is willing to work with the city to bring about power grid improvements, plus a hike and bike trail which would share the right-of-way.

Late last year, Norfolk Southern filed an application with the STB to abandon the stretch from just north of Treat Road to Chamberlain Road in Mantua Township.

After NS filed a verified notice of exemption on Nov. 13, 2017, to abandon, the exemption became effective Jan. 2, 2018. NS verified the line qualified for a two-year out of service exemption.

All Aboard Ohio, a non-profit group that advocates for intercity passenger rail service, filed motions to void and reject the notice of exemption, but the STB denied them in late March.

The STB determined there is no basis for requiring NS to keep the line in the national rail system.

The agency said it is not inappropriate or unlawful to seek abandonment authority to allow other uses of the property, and there is no basis for All Aboard Ohio’s request for the board to order NS to end all easement discussions.

In a 2017 letter to LaWanda Poarch, abandonments coordinator for NS, Womer Benjamin outlined the city’s efforts to pursue a hike and bike trail along the former rail corridor.

The Portage Park District also has supported efforts to use the right-of-way through Aurora for a trail. That could extend westward the Headwaters Trail, another section of former rail line between Mantua and Garrettsville.

Womer Benjamin said the city had the 5.5 miles of right-of-way appraised at a value of $640,000. She also explained city officials have proposed an alternative route for FirstEnergy’s transmission line. "We don’t want 70-foot poles running through the middle of town," she said.

But Colafella responded an alternative route or burying the electric lines along the rail line would significantly increase the cost of the project and could result in more poles being erected along roads and through residents’ front yards.

"And placing the lines along some of the routes the city has proposed would result in removal of trees and vegetation, plus would create maintenance issues," he added.

He said the railroad right-of-way averages 100 feet in width, which is an ideal dimension and would permit easy access for maintenance, is less visible to the public and would accommodate the trail the city wants to establish.

"We’ve discussed the electric needs of the area with the city for quite some time," Colafella said. "We’ve studied several potential routes, and believe the rail bed is the best and least disruptive of all of them."

Colafella said the firm plans to schedule public meetings before the end of the year to inform local residents about its plans. "We will publicize those meetings," he said.

Meanwhile, in a letter sent to Aurora residents, Womer Benjamin asked for support of the administration’s and Council’s efforts to acquire the right-of-way, and for them to attend any public meetings held by FirstEnergy.

Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 Ext. 4189 or klahmers@recordpub.com