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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Government Loses "Rails to Trails" Case

The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday in favor of a landowner who challenged the U.S. government's claim to a former railroad right of way that ran through the landowner's property.  Brandt v. United States (March 10, 2014).

In 1875, Congress passed the "General Right of Way Act of 1875" that gave railroad companies rights of way through public land.  101 years later, the US conveyed 83 acres of land to the Brandt family in a land patent.  That patent reserved the railroad's rights to the previously granted right of way.  Years later, the railroad relinquished its rights to certain land, including the right of way that ran through the Brandt family property. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government sought a judicial order of rights to the abandoned railway right of way. The Brandts objected, claiming that it now had full title to the land once the railroad abandoned its easement. The district court and court of appeals ruled in favor of the US government, and the Brandts appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed, ruling in favor of the Brandts.  The ruling centered on the nature of the railroad's rights to the right of way. Specifically, the Court wrestled with whether the rights were an easement or fee simple title.  Relying on previous arguments made by the U.S. government in 1942 that a railroad company was granted only easement rights to these rights of way, the Justices determined that those easement rights were extinguished when the railroad abandoned the use of the tracks.  Upon termination of those rights, the Brandts' land became unburdened by the easement.  

What is not discussed in the majority opinion is the impact of this decision on the federal government's "rails to trails" program, that turns abandoned railroads into bike and pedestrian trailways.  Justice Sotomayor mentions this in her dissenting opinion, stating that the decision "undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation." She also expresses concern that this decision could result in lawsuits by other landowners that will cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.  

An amicus brief in support of the government was filed by the National Conference of State Legislatures, National League of Cities, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), and the American Planning Association (APA). The Rails to Trails Conservancy, a non-profit organization, had also backed the government in this case.  

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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