Keep The Rails or Lose both Rails & Trails - U.S. Supreme Court
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's ruling in an obscure Wyoming land dispute Monday could result in the loss of thousands of miles of bicycle trails or cost the government millions of dollars in compensation.
The justices ruled 8-1 that government easements used for railroad beds over public and private land in the West expired once the railroads went out of business, and the land must revert to its owners.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said the case was decided based on an 1875 act of Congress and a 1942 Supreme Court decision involving Great Northern Railway.
That ruling confirmed that the government merely had received easements without any long-term land rights, he said. The establishment in 1983 of the federal "rails to trails" program didn't change the court's interpretation for easements that expired earlier.
"We're going to stick with that today," Roberts said from the bench.
The decision could jeopardize the "rails to trails" program, responsible for creating more than 1,400 bike and nature trails, many of them built along railroad rights-of-way....
Writing for the majority in the case, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the grant of land, or patent, "did not specify what would occur if the railroad abandoned this right of way."
During oral arguments earlier this year, discussion of the case also centered on the differences between an easement and a fee. Here's a relevant exchange from the court transcript:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Is there any doctrine in property law that if a right of access is granted and it's to the exclusion of all other uses, it's — it looks for all purposes like absolute control, that it ceases to be an easement and becomes a limited fee? I mean, is there some magic that takes place in property law so that if there's a grant that conveys such total control, is it construed not to be an easement?
MR. LECHNER: I don't know of any.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I've never seen it.
MR. LECHNER: Roads, highways are conveyed —
JUSTICE SCALIA: Have you even heard of the term "limited fee" until this case? I never heard it.
MR. LECHNER: Well, I read these —
JUSTICE SCALIA: James Casner didn't talk to me about limited fee.
MR. LECHNER: I read these cases in law school so I was aware of the term.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Thank you, counsel.
The case is submitted.
In her dissent, Sotomayor wrote that the justices were shifting the court's position on rights of way that it established in 1903. The issue is broader than whether rights are termed "easements" or "fees," she said. She concluded:
"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. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."
The ruling does not affect trails that have been “railbanked” (the federal process of preserving former railway corridors for potential future railway service by converting them to multi-use trails in the interim). Potentially affected corridors are predominantly west of the Mississippi and were originally acquired by railroads after 1875 through federal land to aid in westward expansion.
The lesson here for El Dorado County is not to pull up the tracks as some trail advocates have demanded. The risk here is losing the entire right of way as it reverts to property owners along the way — or at the very least generates quit claim deeds and suits to quiet title.
Currently local train buffs are operating weekend excursion trains from a station in El Dorado to Shingle Springs. The railroad right of way joint powers authority should allow the Folsom-based railroad group to repair the line from Placerville Road to Latrobe and probably all the way to Shingle Springs.
Folsom has maintained its rails and streets crossings. What this Supreme Court decision says is that railroad rights of way should be used or lose them.
There is plenty of right of way to run a pedestrian path alongside the railroad. Why chance it?
The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors should reconsider its previous action to seek removal of the rails west of Shingle Springs and should reverse its denial of the Folsom railroad proposal.
An 1871 U.S. law did give fee title rights of way to railroads. Prior to 1871, according Justice Sonia Sotomeyer’s dissenting opinion, the railroad rights of way were grants of a “limited fee,” “commonly known as a defeasible fee,” meaning they revert back to the U.S. government upon abandonment.
It is uncertain how the rights of way were acquired for the Placerville and Sacramento Valley Railroad, later acquired by Southern Pacific. The PSVRR was built in sections at different times. Constructed by Theodore Judah, the first segment of the line opened in 1856 and brought passengers from Sacramento to Folsom, a distance of 22.9 miles. Between 1863 and 1865, the line was extended first to Latrobe and then to Shingle Springs. On May 21, 1869, the ... Read more here: http://www.mtdemocrat.com/opinion/keep-the-rails-2/
Here is the actual case decision: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-1173_nlio.pdf