Thursday, January 23, 2014
Turning old railroad lines into parks and bike paths seems like a great idea. When it results in things like NYC's Highline Park who can complain, but not everyone is happy about these rail to trail projects. In fact, it is the subject of a case currently pending before the Supreme Court. (This is not a case under the Rails-to-Trails Act but implicated perhaps thousands of miles of trails that came from rails).
Marvin Brandt is upset about the bike trail built by the Forest Service on an abandoned railway through his land. Brandt argues that the when the railroad abandoned the government-issued right-of-way, the feds did not have the right to create a new right-of-way in the form of the trail.
The tricky issue here is determining what exactly a railroad right-of-way is. When I hear the term ROW, I envision an easement. But as we all know there are some things out there that sound like easements but aren’t actually easements. The government argues here that these railroad ROWs were not easements in the traditional sense. However, nor were they fee simple strips of land given to the railroad. Instead they are some third category of property law that no one can quite figure out how to define. A surface defeasible fee subject to a reverter perhaps? Let’s break it down.
If it’s an easement: The federal government gives the railroad an easement through public land. The common law rules of easements apply. This means that when the railroad abandons the track in the 1980s (or whenever it was), the easement is extinguished and full unencumbered fee simple title goes back to the underlying landowner. This particular parcel is no longer federal land because the Forest Service swapped it with the Brandt family. Traditional run of the mill easement law tells us that the Brandt family (owner of the servient estate) should have this land with no dominant easement holder left around to bug them (or ride bikes through their property). This is what Brandt’s attorney argues. Not argued, but hinted at by Justice Sotomayor is that the easement holder was really the US and it temporarily transferred its easement rights to the railroad. Now that the railroad is done, it can keep using the easement for similar (transportation) uses through the Forest Service bike trail.
If it was a patent (i.e., fee simple absolute): The federal government gave the railroad a strip of land and the railroad owned that strip (or spaghetti noodle as the court seemed to like envisioning it). This would mean that the railroad owns the land for any purpose and once it stops using the railroad tracks for trains, it could use them for something else or it could sell them to the underlying landowner (or lose ownership via adverse possession if it stands by and does nothing while the forest service or underlying landowner makes use of the land). No one actually argues that the railroad had an unrestricted fee simple though. Instead, it might be that they had a type of defeasible fee (starting to give you flashbacks of your 1L property class yet?). That’s right, the railroad had a fee interest subject to the possibility of reverter. That is, the federal government had a reversionary interest and would get the land back if the railroad stopped using it for railroad purposes.
Now of course, it is not as simple as just reading over the grant to the railroad and figuring out what it said. Instead, we have several wrinkles. For example, there is an 1922 Act (postdating the grant to the railroad) explaining that when the railroad stops using the land for railroad purposes and it reverts to the feds, the feds should first use the land for roads and streets, then consider giving to municipalities, and if that doesn’t pan out give the land to neighboring landowners. There is a more recent statute adjusting that order of priority, but these statutes sure make it sound like the US had a reversionary interest. Of course, Justice Scalia pointed out that he doesn’t care very much about how a subsequent Congress interpreted the railroad’s property right. He is only interest in looking at the 1875 Act enabling grants of ROWs the railroad to try and figure out the property right.
There are some cases muddying the water including a 1942 case interpreting the 1875 Act, concluding that the railroad in question there had not gotten subsurface rights and instead had gotten something akin to an easement.
There is also the tricky part of the land conveyance to the Brandts. The Forest Service swapped some land with Brandt’s father back in 1976. While the land conveyance noted the railroad’s ROW, it did not mention any reversionary interest. Leading the Brandts (quite reasonably) to believe that the ROW was just a standard run of the mill easement. Can an underlying federal law be in trouble where the forest service neglected to mention it in a land conveyance? Perhaps Brandt’s property lawyer should have researched more and tried to determine what was really going on…
The oral argument in this case is fun for land geeks, especially those of us who teach or study property and/or federal lands. The Court seemed particularly interested in figuring out how much lands the feds own and how much has been converted to other uses -- and what the implications of allowing such reversions would be. Several justices pushed the parties to try and explain how many acres or how many landowners were at stake. No one dared to put forth an estimate. I actually laughed out loud when the justices were shocked that the federal government didn’t keep good track of its land holdings and dispersals. They are so cute sometimes.