Landowners on former Beacon line seek payment
A Missouri law firm says it represents nearly 200 landowners who are planning to sue the federal government once Metro-North gets the OK to convert the dormant Beacon railroad line into a rail trail.
Metro-North, which purchased the line in 1995, plans to close a 41-mile segment from Beacon to the Connecticut border. In Beacon, it begins near the train station, loops past Dennings Point and Madam Brett Park, and runs parallel with the east end of Main Street before heading toward Hopewell Junction.
Last year, the City Council asked Dutchess County to study creating a 13-mile rail trail from the waterfront to Hopewell. A county spokesperson said this week that the study has not begun; however, if the county were to construct the trail, it could connect with the Dutchess Rail Trail and the 750-mile Empire State Trail.
A freight company, the Housatonic Railroad Co., fought Metro-North’s plans but in January filed notice with the federal Surface Transportation Board that it no longer claims a right to use the tracks. In turn, Metro-North has asked the STB to authorize a “notice of interim trail use,” which would allow Metro-North to negotiate with agencies in Dutchess or Putnam County to operate and maintain a rail trail.
That’s where Stewart, Wald & McCulley, a St. Louis-based firm that says it specializes in rails-to-trails litigation, could enter the picture. The firm said this week that it has met with close to 200 landowners in the 41-mile corridor who believe the federal government should pay them for the “taking of land” in conjunction with the project.
According to the firm, the 1963 Trails Act permits the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors into nature and hiking trails but also preserves the rights of way. The practice is known as “railbanking” and creates easements that block landowners from claiming property within the corridor.
Steve Wald, the lead attorney on the project, said on Tuesday (March 28) that his firm does not oppose the rail trail but will go to court as soon as trail usage is authorized for the line.
“There’s nothing that Metro-North is doing wrong,” Wald said. “They’re simply using a federal law to convert the rail line into a trail.”
But he said that landowners adjoining the corridor could legally claim swaths of land likely lost in the late 1800s, when railroads and boats were the primary modes of transportation. Wald said that rail companies during the era typically purchased, condemned or acquired easements on the land needed for tracks.
The “predecessors in title” of the landowners he’s met with fell into the latter two categories, Wald said, noting that he believes there may be 300 more such property owners in the corridor. They “have the same rights as the original landowners,” he said, and, in the event of a conversion, should be given “full possession and control” of land used for the railroad, or be compensated.
Stewart, Wald & McCulley has litigated similar cases nationwide and in New York state, and had been monitoring the Beacon line for abandonment, he said. Nothing in the pending lawsuit would attempt to stop the trail, he added.
The firm said it will hold informational meetings for landowners next week at the Hyatt House off Route 9 in Fishkill. See bit.ly/rail-trail-landowners.
Whether a property owner could receive payment for land abandoned by Metro-North to create a rail trail depends on how the property was acquired. The documents would be on file in the county clerk’s office. Some properties were purchased by the railroad and some were easements. If it was an easement, the ownership likely reverts to the adjoining owner upon abandonment of the railroad.
I’ve been the land surveyor on a number of rail trail projects in the region, and there are always title issues that need to be cleaned up. While it’s obnoxious that this out-of-region firm from Missouri is soliciting business, these aren’t uncommon issues on a project like this. [via Instagram]
It was inevitable that lawyers would sniff a potential payday. Just pay them and the landowners whose easements may revert back and be done with it. [via Instagram]
The last thing this area needs is another venue to ride a bike. Preserve the corridor as transit infrastructure. [via Instagram]