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Rails-to-Trails: Supreme Court Against Railway Trails on Private Land

By Morgan Chilson   |   Monday, 10 Mar 2014 04:04 PM

In the "Rails-to-Trails" case, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday found in favor of a Wyoming landowner who didn’t want the government to convert a railroad right-of-way into a public trail on his property, and the ruling may have a far-ranging impact on completed and future plans to create such paths, Reuters said.

Marvin Brandt objected to a walking path cutting through 40 acres of his land that stretches through the Medicine Bow National Forest, Reuters said. In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court found in Brandt’s favor, raising questions about other such trails across the country.

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“The right of way was an easement that was terminated by the railroad’s abandonment, leaving Brandt’s land unburdened,” the court’s decision said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenting vote.

In addition to explaining why she doesn’t believe the case legally holds up, she wrote in her opinion, “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.”

According to the The Rails to Trails Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, there are 20,000 miles of railroads converted to trails, and 9,000 more that could be converted.

The organization supported the government’s efforts to retain rights to the railroad easements.

In a press release in December, Rails to Trails Senior Vice President Kevin Mills said, “An erosion of protections of these public lands in the Supreme Court would not only potentially block the completion of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, but could also threaten existing rail-trails across America that utilize federally granted rights-of-way. We are defending the original intent of the legislation that explicitly held that these linear public spaces should remain of, and for, the people.”

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