US Supreme Court deals blow to rails-to-trails efforts

by Gary Taylor

The US Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the rails-to-trails case discussed previously in this blog.  In an 8-1 decision, the Court sided with the landowner that claimed the railroad corridor reverted to the landowners when it was abandoned by the railroad.  This decision has the potential to block plans for the completion of several currently planned rail trails, and would also threaten existing rail trails and public highways across America that utilize federally granted rights-of-way.  According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, there are hundreds of abandoned railroad corridors across the country that have been converted into publicly accessible trails. Some of the better-known rail-trails that occupy federally-granted rights-of-way include the George S. Mickelson Trail in South Dakota, the Foothills Trail and the John Wayne Pioneer trails in Washington, the Weiser River Trail in Idaho and the Rio Grande Trail in Colorado.

Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States
(United States Supreme Court, March 10, 2014)

(Adapted from the syllabus of the Court)

Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States.” One such right of way, obtained by a railroad in 1908, crosses land that the United States conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated, as relevant here, that the land was granted subject to the railroad’s rights in the 1875 Act right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad later relinquished those rights. Years later, a successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The Government then sought a judicial declaration of abandonment and an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch that crossed the land conveyed in the Brandt patent. Petitioners contested the claim, asserting that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it, so that Brandt now enjoys full title to his land without the burden of the easement. The Government countered that the 1875 Act granted the railroad something more than a mere easement, and that the United States retained a reversionary interest in that land once the railroad abandoned it. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Government and quieted title in the United States to the right of way. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

The United States Supreme Court held that the right of way was an easement that was terminated by the railroad’s abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened. According to the Court, the Government loses this case in large part because it won when it argued the opposite in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States. There, the Government contended that the 1875 Act (unlike pre-1871 statutes granting rights of way) granted nothing more than an easement, and that the railroad in that case therefore had no interest in the resources beneath the surface of its right of way. This Court adopted the Government’s position in full. It found the 1875 Act’s text “wholly inconsistent” with the grant of a fee interest, agreed with the Government that cases describing the nature of rights of way granted prior to 1871 were “not controlling” because of a major shift in congressional policy concerning land grants to railroads after that year,  and held that the 1875 Act “clearly grants only an easement.” Under well-established common law property principles, an easement disappears when abandoned by its beneficiary, leaving the owner of the underlying land to resume a full and unencumbered interest in the land.

The Government asked the Court to limit Great Northern’s characterization of 1875 Act rights of way as easements to the question of who owns the oil and minerals beneath a right of way. But nothing in the 1875 Act’s text supports that reading, and the Government’s reliance on the similarity of the language in the 1875 Act and pre-1871 statutes directly contravenes the very premise of Great Northern: that the 1875 Act granted a fundamentally different interest than did its predecessor statutes.

Finally, later enacted statutes, do not define or shed light on the nature of the interest Congress granted to railroads in their rights of way in 1875. They instead purport only to dispose of interests (if any) the United States already possesses.

Writing in a lone dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued that the majority opinion placed on the Great Northern precedent “more weight than that case will bear.” The Court has long considered railway rights apart from the usual common-law regime, she said.  “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.”

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