NLC Joins “Rails-to-Trails” Supreme Court Brief

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Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Perhaps your city is fortunate and has extensive biking and recreational trails.  If so, have you ever wondered, where do bike paths come from? Many bike paths in the country come from abandoned railroad land grants or right-of-way grants and have been converted from “Rails-to-Trails.”  Who is often responsible for converting and maintaining these trails?  Cities, of course!

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, future trails could be in jeopardy.

In Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States the Court will decide who owns an abandoned federally granted railroad right-of-way:  the United States or the land owner whose property the right-of-way runs through.  The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting the United States. NLC has signed onto the brief.

In 1908, the United States granted the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad Company a right-of-way to build a railroad over public land pursuant to the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875.  In 1976, the predecessor to the Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust bought land in Wyoming surrounding part of this railroad right-of-way.  In 2004, the railroad abandoned the right-of-way.  The Trust argued that it owns the abandoned right-of-way.  The Tenth Circuit disagreed. concluding that a number of federal statutes provide that the United States retains a “reversionary interest” in General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 rights-of-way.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the Tenth Circuit, state and local governments will benefit.  A federal statute, if applicable, grants the United States title to abandoned railroad rights-of-way unless a “public highway” is established on the right-of-way within one year of abandonment.  Public highways include recreational trails.

The SLLC amicus brief argues that state and local governments have long relied on the federal statutes relevant to this case to build public highways in abandoned railroad rights-of-way.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, and the American Planning Association also signed onto the SLLC’s brief.

Oral argument has been scheduled for January 14.  The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by June 30, 2014.