A Good Win
Published: 12 April 2014
On March 10, the Supreme Court ruled in favor for a Wyoming small landowner over a right of way issue. The Supreme Court ruling overturned previous rulings by a Wyoming Federal District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in favor of the U.S. Forest Service in a dispute over whether a landowner and others had title to a railroad right-of-way that bisected their property.
Marvin Brandt, of Fox Park southwest of Laramie and close to the Colorado border, claimed title to a railroad right-of-way that the railroad had abandoned years ago. The railroad used the right-of-way and tracks from 1904 to 1995, and the tracks and ties were removed by 2000.
In 1976, the U.S. Forest Service or government patented an 83-acre piece of land to the parents of Marvin Brandt. The patent conveyed fee simple title to the land with the understanding that railroads would have the right-of-way through the corridor.
The railroad had a troubled history. It was a railroad to nowhere in later years. The last years it was running was to take tourists and recreationists from Laramie down to the Colorado border and back. After the tracks and rails were removed, the government called for an “implied reversionary interest” on the right-of-way and made the rail corridor into a seldom-used bike trail. I imagine it could have been use for a snowmobile trail also.
Anyway, at that time, it just invited people onto and through Brandt’s and other’s land. The area has a number of summer homes and is quite a community in the summer.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “We cannot overlook the irony in the government’s argument. It was not until 1988, 12 years after the U.S. patented the parcel of land to the Brandts, that Congress did an about face and attempted to reserve the right-of-ways to the United States. That policy shift cannot operate to create an interest in land that the government had already given away.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayer filed the only dissent argument, saying the court placed too much emphasis on the one case for precedent without considering others implying the reversion to the U.S. Government.
She said, “By changing course today, the court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former right-of-ways that the public now enjoys as a 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.”
I would guess with this ruling, may save money, as people wouldn’t have to go to court as often to get their lands back.
The non-profits that advocate for the rails to trails ownership of these rights-of-ways are screaming bloody murder, as this could affect miles of trails, and some they will not.
Our old friend, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, was involved in the litigation, and we are happy for that and give them a big thank you.
If the public wants these trails, they can buy an easement or a right-of-way just like the rest of us do. Freedom runs both ways. Just because a wrong is a large wrong and affects many people doesn’t make it legal.