Abandoned railroad lines belong to private property owners and not the federal government, the US Supreme Court has ruled in a case that observers called a major victory for property owners, particularly ones out West.
Among other things, the ruling in Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States stops the federal government from simply seizing railroad right of ways on private property to use as hiking or bicycle trails. Now Uncle Sam will have to pay landowners for such right of ways and property owners can say no to the trail if they want.
The case focused on one Wyoming landowner but will have a nationwide impact.
“Tens of thousands of other property owners also could emerge as victors,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. Breyer, who voted with the 8-1 majority, noted that the ruling would stop the federal government from running bicycle trails through homes and yards.
The federal government might have to pay 10,000 property owners in 30 states up to $100 million because of the ruling, the Associated Press reported. The property owners had land taken in the Rails to Trails program which converts old rail lines into trails.
“This is a huge victory for landowners, particularly in the West,” William Perry Pendley, who helped represent the Wyoming landowner, told the Los Angeles Times.
1875 Law At Center Of Controversy
“This case presents the question of what happens to a railroad’s right of way granted under a particular statute — the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 — when the railroad abandons it: does it go to the Government, or to the private party who acquired the land underlying the right of way?” Chief Justice John Roberts noted in the majority opinion.
The dispute in the case centered on the US Forest Service’s efforts to turn the bed of the defunct Wyoming and Colorado Railroad which linked Walden, Colorado, with Laramie, Wyoming into a trail. The government claimed it had the right to simply take the right of way for the trail from property owners without compensating them because it was an old railroad.
Part of the right of way crossed 83 acres owned by the Brandt family. The Brandts objected to the land grab and went to court.
No Separate Set of Rules for Uncle Sam
The Brandts and their attorneys contended that right of ways granted under the General Railroad Act can only be used for railroad right of way. Roberts and seven other Supreme Court Justices agreed.
Roberts based his decision partially on a 1942 case, Great Northern Railway Company vs. United States. In that case the Great Northern Railway (now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe or BNSF) argued that it had the right to drill for oil on its right of way. The Supreme Court rejected that line of reasoning and ruled rights of way were only intended to be used for rails.
Ruling Could Lead To Millions of Dollars in Lawsuits
Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority ruling. Sotomayor based her objection on earlier court rulings that former railroad rights of way revert to the federal government and not private landowners.
“By changing course today, the Court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation,” Sotomayor wrote. “And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. I do not believe the law requires this result, and I respectfully dissent.”
Sotomayor seems to agree with legal analyst Lyle Denniston, who believes that hundreds or thousands of property owners will now file challenges to Rails to Trails land seizures.
It should be noted here that this case does not affect all old railroad right of ways. Instead, as Chief Justice Roberts pointed out, it only affects those lines on right of ways granted under the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875.
What do you think? Is this a victory for property rights or a loss of recreational opportunities? Let us know in the comments below.