Originally created 08/13/97

Cut off



SAVANNAH - Twenty-five employees of a Hutchinson Island tugboat repair company contend they'll have no way to get to work if CSX Transportation closes their only way in - a 1,200-foot private road.

CSX officials offer little sympathy. They say an agreement that gave Savannah Marine Service use of the road included a 30-day cancellation clause.

"We just need to fence off the property, and we need to cancel this agreement that we have the right to cancel," said Ralph Presley of CSX Real Property in Atlanta.

Savannah Marine Service is asking a judge to grant it use of the road. Closing the road would mean a loss of $250,000 in monthly sales and the loss of jobs, according to a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Savannah.

Savannah Marine likely will be forced out of business without use of the road, the suit says.

Presley denies any speculation that his company is blocking the road to force Savannah Marine's closure so CSX can acquire the half-acre parcel of land. Savannah Marine's land sits just east of the Talmadge Bridge on the Savannah River, and CSX owns a much larger parcel directly behind it.

CSX plans to clean up its own land, which is vacant, but has no immediate plans for development, Presley said.

Land on Hutchinson Island has become a more valuable commodity now that Chatham County plans to build the $81 million Georgia International Maritime and Trade Center there next to a $92 million resort and golf course developed by CSX.

Savannah Marine bought its riverfront property three years ago from Colonial Oil for $60,000. It pays $3,000 annually to CSX for use of the road, Savannah Marine President John Van Puffelen said.

After the purchase, Savannah Marine began moving its operation to the site from another spot on the island, near International Paper. Three months ago, it started running solely from the new site.

Presley said Van Puffelen knew no access to the property existed when he bought it.

"That's something I would check into if I bought a piece of property - does it have access?" he said. "They knew this agreement had a 30-day cancellation clause when they took out the clause."

The lawsuit states that Savannah Marine and its predecessors used the road for more than 20 years and legally should be entitled to continue using it.

"There's no other place on the Savannah River to operate," Van Puffelen said. "We need to be able to get to this land."

For now, CSX is allowing use of the road until a Superior Court judge issues a decision. No hearing date has been scheduled.

State law allows courts to grant private ways to individuals to go from and return to their properties and places of business. But Presley says Savannah Marine has other access to its property - the Savannah River.

John McCleskey, project manager of CSX's resort on the island, said the road closure has nothing to do with that project.

"That (CSX) property is not part of the resort or part of anything whatsoever that has to do with the trade center," he said.