Under well-established common law property principles, an easement disappears when abandoned by its beneficiary, leaving the owner of the underlying land to resume a full and unencumbered interest in the land. See Smith v. Townsend, 148 U. S. 490, 499. Pp. 8–12.
Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States,” 43 U. S. C. §934.< /li>
Jenna Greene at the National Law Journal recently wrote: “just in the past year, the federal government has paid out nearly $50 million in settlements to property owners to compensate them for the conversion of private railroad property to trails, even when the landowners get to keep the land.”
In an 8-1 decision, the court sided with a Wyoming property owner in a dispute over a proposed bicycle trail that would follow the route of an abandoned railroad line bisecting Brandts’ land. The issue decided was a narrow—but extremely important—question of property law: who owns the land underlying a railroad right-of-way after it stops being used as a railway?
On that question, the court ruled that railroad rights-of-way are subject to the same common law rules as any other easement. In so ruling, the court rejected the government’s argument that federal land grants operate under an entirely different set of rules from other property. The government had asked the court to rule that it retained an “implied reversionary interest” in the railroad easement, such that, when the railway was abandoned, ownership would vest in the federal government, not the underlying property owner. There were many problems with the government’s argument, not the least of which was that it had successfully argued the opposite position, that railroad rights-of-way are common law easements, more than 70 years ago, in the case Great Northern Railway Co. v. US. And an “implied reversionary interest” simply cannot exist under the common law of estates and servitudes.
Thus, applying the common law of property, the court explained that the right-of-way crossing Brandts’ land was extinguished upon abandonment, and, by operation of law, Brandt holds the property free of any servitudes.
Justice Sotomayor argued against the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment mandates that requires the government pay just compensation when it seeks to take private property for public use. Indeed, a unanimous court made that precise point almost twenty-five years ago in Preseault v. Interstate Commerce Comm’n when it upheld the Rails-to-Trails Act against a facial challenge. In that case, the court cautioned that some of the abandoned railroad rights-of-way may be held in private ownership, which will require just compensation before converting the land into public recreational trails.
The Court of Federal Claims (CFC) has routinely held that if a railroad received only an easement in its corridor lands, whether by private deed or government grant, and it subsequently abandons or railbanks the corridor, which is then converted to a trail under the federal railbanking process, then adjacent landowners are entitled to compensation
for a taking of their property rights.
In other words, government can take what it wants but it must pay for it.
On the case of Haggart v. United States, 1:09-cv-00103 (Fed. Cl. 2014), The Supreme Court held the Fifth Amendment requires the Government to pay compensation under the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a) (1982), to landowners whose reversionary interests in property were forestalled by the Trails Act. See Preseault v. I.C.C., 494 U.S. 1, 12–13 (1990).
If you own property next to an old railroad track that is being turned into a community trail, the federal government could owe you money, perhaps a million dollars a mile. A portion of your land may have been “taken” by the government. Filing a claim might stop or delay a rails-to-trails conversion project.
Rails-to-Trails Is Land Taking
In 1983, Congress amended the National Trails System Act, which is also known as the Rails-to-Trails Act. The Act grants the federal government the authority to turn abandoned railroad right-of-ways into a nationwide system of recreational trails. The Act includes a program that lets railroad companies transfer the land under their railroad tracks to organizations, cities, or individuals who will convert it into recreational trails for public use. In order to transfer this land, the federal government, through the Rails-to-Trails Act, puts into motion a “taking” of the abandoned railroad corridors, which likely would have reverted to the adjoining landowners.
Typically this is how the process occurs:
- A railroad company abandons or stops using a railway corridor.
The federal government “takes” that land back for another use, such as a community recreation trail.
Private property owners adjacent to the land can demand to be fairly paid for that transfer of property since they’re not getting it back.
The property owner files a lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington D.C. asking for “just compensation” for the taking of his or her land.
- What’s unusual in Rails-to-Trails land seizures is that the federal government takes what appears to be the railroad’s track for public use, but you may actually own the land under the tracks and thus be entitled to compensation.
Here are ten trails in PA:
1. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Albany Township
2. Glen Onoko Falls, Jim Thorpe
3. Susquehannock State Forest
4. Golden Eagle Trail, just north of Cammal
5. Raccoon Creek State Park, Beaver County
6. Jacobsburg State Park, Northampton County
7. Alan Seeger Natural Area, Rothrock State Forest, Huntingdon County
8. Top Mountain Trail, Naked Mountain, Union County
9. Dingmans Ferry Creek Trail, Pike County
10. Promised Land State Park, Pike County
Here’s ten more in New Jersey:
1. Barnegat Branch Trail, Ocean County, NJ
2. Columbia Trail, Hunterdon and Morris counties, NJ
3. Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail Hunterdon, Mercer and Somerset counties NJ
4. Edgar Felix Memorial Bikeway, Monmouth County, NJ
5. Henry Hudson Trail Monmouth County, NJ
6. Middle Township Bike Path, Cape May County NJ.
7. Paulinskill Valley Trail in Sussex and Warren counties, NJ.
8. Pleasantville to Somers Point Bike Path in Atlantic County, NJ
9. Sandy Hook Multi-Use Pathway in Monmouth County, NJ
10. The 20 mile Sussex Branch Trail, Sussex County
- A railroad company abandons or stops using a railway corridor.