Supreme Court deals setback to rails-to-trails movement

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, pictured in January, dissented in Monday's ruling. She said the decision "undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation."
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty Images)

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.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 gave the rail lines a temporary easement across the land, but once the rail line was abandoned and the property was sold, the government no longer had a right of way.


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 Sonia Sotomayor, in a lone dissent, said the decision “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.”

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 Congress and the federal government for changing their stance on property rights. He said lawmakers in 1922 said that rights of way that were abandoned by the railroads could become the property of a municipality or a private owner. But in 1988, when the rails-to-trails movement was gaining popularity, “Congress did an about-face” and passed a new law to reserve these rights for the government.

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.