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Supreme Court deals setback to Rails-to-Trails movement

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  • County News Article

    Supreme Court deals setback to Rails-to-Trails movement

    The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States may have derailed a popular program used by many local governments to provide outdoor recreational opportunities.

    In a March 10 decision, the court held 8 1 that a private party, rather than the federal government, owns an abandoned railroad right of way granted by the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875.

    When the federal government owns abandoned railroad rights of way, state and local governments may convert them into "Rails-to-Trails." The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus curiae brief in this case, which NACo joined.

    The land in question is adjacent to the Medicine Bow Rail Trail in the Medicine Bow National Forest. In 1908, the United States granted the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railroad Co. a right of way to build a railroad over public land in Wyoming in accordance with the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875. In 1976, the federal government granted a parcel of land to the Brandts that this right of way ran through. In 2004, the successor railroad abandoned the right of way and the Brandts challenged the federal government's claim that it owned the abandoned right of way.

    A state-by-state list of rails-to-trails projects

    The court ruled against the federal government "in large part because it won when it argued the opposite before this court more than 70 years ago in the case of Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States." In that case, the United States claimed that the railroad had been given only an easement because after 1871, when Congress stopped giving railroads parcels of land and only gave them rights of way, the United States also stopped retaining rights to the property in the event it became abandoned known as reverter rights and instead granted railroads mere easements.

    The United States and the SLLC argued that the court should not read Great Northern so broadly and that a series of federal statutes apply to abandoned 1875 rights of way. These statutes grant the United States title to abandoned rights of way unless a state or local government establishes a "public highway," including a recreational trail, within one year of abandonment.

    The justices discussed the SLLC brief, which argued that state and local governments have relied on these statutes. Yet the court concluded they don't apply to 1875 rights of way because "these statutes do not tell us whether the United States has an interest in any particular right of way; they simply tell us how any interest the United States might have should be disposed of."

    Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, summarized why this case is a loss for federal, state and local government: "[T]he 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."

    According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy there are currently 1,853 rail-trails in the U.S. for a total of 21,768 miles, while 685 rail-trail projects are in the works, which would add another 7,835 miles to the system when completed.

    The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States may have derailed a popular program used by many local governments to provide outdoor recreational opportunities.
    2014-04-04
    County News Article
    2018-06-01

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States may have derailed a popular program used by many local governments to provide outdoor recreational opportunities.

In a March 10 decision, the court held 8 1 that a private party, rather than the federal government, owns an abandoned railroad right of way granted by the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875.

When the federal government owns abandoned railroad rights of way, state and local governments may convert them into "Rails-to-Trails." The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus curiae brief in this case, which NACo joined.

The land in question is adjacent to the Medicine Bow Rail Trail in the Medicine Bow National Forest. In 1908, the United States granted the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railroad Co. a right of way to build a railroad over public land in Wyoming in accordance with the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875. In 1976, the federal government granted a parcel of land to the Brandts that this right of way ran through. In 2004, the successor railroad abandoned the right of way and the Brandts challenged the federal government's claim that it owned the abandoned right of way.

Bullet A state-by-state list of rails-to-trails projects

The court ruled against the federal government "in large part because it won when it argued the opposite before this court more than 70 years ago in the case of Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States." In that case, the United States claimed that the railroad had been given only an easement because after 1871, when Congress stopped giving railroads parcels of land and only gave them rights of way, the United States also stopped retaining rights to the property in the event it became abandoned known as reverter rights and instead granted railroads mere easements.

The United States and the SLLC argued that the court should not read Great Northern so broadly and that a series of federal statutes apply to abandoned 1875 rights of way. These statutes grant the United States title to abandoned rights of way unless a state or local government establishes a "public highway," including a recreational trail, within one year of abandonment.

The justices discussed the SLLC brief, which argued that state and local governments have relied on these statutes. Yet the court concluded they don't apply to 1875 rights of way because "these statutes do not tell us whether the United States has an interest in any particular right of way; they simply tell us how any interest the United States might have should be disposed of."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, summarized why this case is a loss for federal, state and local government: "[T]he 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."

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy there are currently 1,853 rail-trails in the U.S. for a total of 21,768 miles, while 685 rail-trail projects are in the works, which would add another 7,835 miles to the system when completed.

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