Rails to Trails Supreme Court Decision

A Wyoming man has won a Supreme Court case fighting efforts to route the Medicine Bow Rail Trail through his family’s property. On Monday the Supreme Court decided in favor of the landowner ruling abandoned rail road tracks are not under the federal government’s control.

Last year we discussed in a blog the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States for review. At issue was the disagreement over who retained the ownership of a railway after abandonment. The government claimed that it retained exclusive possession of the right-of-way. The landowner, Brandt, contended that he owned the right-of-way without any rights reserved to the United States.

Brandt brought a lawsuit when the Forest Service moved to convert a portion of abandoned rail road tracks through the Brandt property into a bike trail. Before the lawsuit reached the Supreme Court, district and appeals courts had ruled in favor of the government concluding that the United States possessed an “implied” ownership interest in the abandoned right-of-way. These rulings subjected Brandt to an easement that was arguably found nowhere in any deed or declaration on the property.

The Supreme Court overruling the decisions by the lower courts could have vast implications in other rail to trail projects being planned throughout the nation. The wider impact is hard to estimate in part because the U.S. government doesn’t have a central database of the land it owns under railroad easement that has since been abandoned. Currently there are about 80 similar cases where this decision could mean that the landowner will walk away victorious.

We will continue to monitor this decision and its effect on landowners and property rights.

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