Johnston Co. man fights to save his home, business, and neighboring farms from railway giant

Sunday, January 17, 2016
Man fights for business, home, farms
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The Farm, built in 2013 on the Lassiter family's land

SELMA, N.C. (WTVD) -- Trent Lassiter might be marrying into a fairly famous family, engaged to the sister of local country music star Scotty McCreery, but it doesn't appear to have changed who he is. In fact, standing along a country road in front of his pickup truck, it's obvious that while he is a self-made businessman, he's also a proud country boy who loves the small community he calls home.

Situated just outside of Selma, along I-95, it's the only home he's ever known, living and working on land that's been passed down from generation to generation in his family dating back to the 1700's.

Trent and his fiance, Ashley, the sister of singer Scotty McCreery

"This is where I grew up, this is where I learned how to catch my first fish in that farm pond," Trent says, gesturing in one direction. "I learned how to turn a wrench in that shop," he says pointing in the opposite direction. "I had a dream of building a business, and I was so proud to be able to do it on my family farm," he adds.

And, in the less than three years since he built that business from the ground up, it's already become a popular music venue hosting country acts like Scotty McCreery and Parmalee and serving as a spot for weddings and other events. Fittingly, it's called "The Farm." But, this past week Lassiter learned he's going to lose not only that farm, but all the farmland surrounding it, including his grandfather's old home. It all started with a phone call from his Dad last Thursday.

"My dad said, 'Someone's here from the railroad, you need to come to the house now. I walked in said, 'Hello my name is Trent Lassiter, nice to meet you.' [The stranger] said, 'I'm Cameron Wilson from CSX,' and before he hardly sat down the next words out of his mouth were 'I am here to buy your family farm and your business.'"

The problem is, Lassiter, his father, and many of their neighbors don't want to sell. But, so far it appears that's a decision that's not up to them. That's because CSX has already settled on this land to serve as an intramodal terminal in Johnston County. As CSX explains on its website, The Carolina Connector, as it's being called, "will connect eastern North Carolina directly to CSX's extensive rail network and serve as a major transportation hub in the South."

"We've been working with state officials for more than a year or two to identify the central location [for this]," explains Kristin Seay with CSX. "It's ideal for us given the location between the rail line and I-95, and it's great for the community, as well."

CSX, the county, and state officials have all been touting the job creation that will result from this as one of the many benefits.

"We're looking at about 250 to 300 construction jobs when we do begin the construction process. Additionally, about 330 long-term operational jobs when the terminal begins operations, which is slated for 2019," lists Seay. And, she goes on to explain that eventually this hub will create 1,500 total jobs, statewide. In addition to this, CSX says the project will save $20 million in state highway maintenance costs and will lead to a significant decrease in carbon dioxide emissions in North Carolina.

But for Lassiter, it's progress that comes at a very personal price for him, his family, his friends, and his neighbors. And, there's not much he can do about it, since it falls under eminent domain, "the power to take private property for public use by a state, municipality, or private person or corporation authorized to exercise functions of public character, following the payment of just compensation to the owner of that property."

"A lot of people were telling us, 'you know, you're fighting a losing battle.' One lawyer said, 'I'm not going to let you pay me to fight this because it ain't going to happen, there's no way you can win this fight,'" he recalls. Still, it's advice he's not accepting. " I mean we can't just go down without trying to fight!" he exclaims, shaking his head.

From Trent's Facebook page

So, in addition to meeting with local, county and state politicians and trying to rally people for a community forum, Lassiter is also taking his fight to social media. He's started a campaign called "Fight for the Farm," something he explains isn't just about his business The Farm, but all of the farms in that area. He's sharing his story on both Facebook and Twitter, and posting pictures of what he believes the end result will look like in hopes of convincing residents that Carolina Connecter will serve as a major eyesore.

But, for CSX, this is already a done deal, although representatives say they are sympathetic and want to work with Lassiter and other residents.

Click here to read Johnston County's response

"We are committed to the site. This site is great for eastern North Carolina, for Johnston County, and it [brings] significant benefits to the area," Seay reiterated. "Again, we understand. People most affected by this will be our focus during this whole process. They'll be working with our real estate team to come to an agreement on property acquisition, and we will be helping them relocate to new areas."

For Lassiter, that's a tough pill to swallow. Standing surveying his property (which includes a new outdoor wedding space he just built), he shares that he'll be getting married in that very spot, and when he does, he'll be looking out over his land. But, he claims it will be a bittersweet day. While it will be the happiest day of his life, it will also be heartbreaking for him, realizing the future he once had planned for his new bride will no longer be on this land that holds so many precious memories.

As for the other brides who have booked his wedding space over the next two years, he expects to continue hosting weddings there as long as he can, through 2018 which is the timeline CSX gave him, and ABC11, for when construction will begin.

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