WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dealt a setback Monday to the popular redevelopment trend of transforming abandoned railroad lines into public bike paths, ruling that buyers of such lands are not required to continue granting a federal right of way.
Legal experts said the decision would make it harder to build bike or hiking trails in areas of the West where railroads were often built on former federal land. In some instances, local governments may be forced to pay compensation to owners whose land is now crossed by bike paths or other government-built trails and parks.
In an 8-1 decision, the justices ruled in favor of Marvin Brandt, a Wyoming man who controls 83 acres of land that was formerly used by the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad, located near the Medicine Bow National Forest. When the U.S. Forest Service told Brandt that the government retained the railroad's right of way across his land and planned to use it for a bike trail, he filed suit.
So when the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad abandoned the line in 2004, "Brandt's land became unburdened of the easement, conferring on him the same full rights" to keep others off his private property, Roberts said.
Though Roberts' opinion in Brandt vs. United States did not discuss bike trails, Justice
A lawyer for the Mountain State Legal Foundation in Colorado, a public interest law firm that defends property rights, predicted that several thousand properties like Brandt's could be affected by the decision.
"This is a huge victory for landowners, particularly in the West," said William Perry Pendley, president of the group that represented Brandt.
"We're deeply disappointed by the decision," said Kevin Mills of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. "This is significant, but it does not mean all rails-trails will disappear. It will result in more litigation." He said the ruling might also have some effect in the Midwest and East.
In his opinion, the chief justice blamed
By then, Brandt and other private buyers like him had purchased some of the land. The law "cannot operate to create an interest in land that the government had already given away," the chief justice said.