The Supreme Court will be hearing a Rails-To-Trails case in Wyoming. It could have major implications for similar trails all over the country:
At issue in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. USA is the Forest Service’s program for turning abandoned railways into trails, or rails-to-trails. Brandt, of Fox Park, owns 83 acres of land he acquired from the Forest Service in 1976.
The land was once part of a government easement for a railroad that operated from 1904 to 1995. The Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad Co. operated the track, which ran 66 miles from Laramie, Wyo., to the Colorado line. After the railroad was abandoned around 2000, some land was preserved as part of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. Other areas, including Albany and Fox Park, were developed privately.
In April 2005, the Forest Service announced it wanted to convert the railway into a public trail. About a year later, the agency sued Brandt and others, claiming it has a right to roughly 28 miles of land. The service said it has a “reversionary interest” in the land under the 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act.
A federal district court and later a federal appeals court agreed, ordering Brandt to turn over title to the land. William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit representing the Brandts, said the case may settle long-standing legal issues surrounding the rails-to-trails program.
There has been an explosion in litigation over rails-to-trails projects. In the past year alone, $49 million has been paid out to people owning land alongside trails. Trail projects are paying as much as $1 million per mile in compensation. Conservative “property rights” groups have been especially active in the litigation.
What is insane about these cases is that even after paying out this windfall, the government does not get ownership of the property. The trails generally run on an easement. The payments are actually compensation to owners for the “decline” in property value caused by the trail — even though bike trails generally increase property values.