Time Expiring For Landowners To Contest ‘Rails-To-Trails’

NEBRASKA CITY –  Landowners along the 22-mile Steamboat Trace Trail from Nebraska City to Brownville are being notified of an opportunity to sue the federal government for permitting use of the land for non-railroad purposes.

The federal case involves 15 railroad corridors  that were granted in Nebraska about 160 years ago. In the 1980s, railroad companies declared that it was no longer economically feasible to keep the railways open.

With the idea that more  rail service could become needed in the future, the federal government did want to forever lose rights to the corridors.

Congress passed the rails-to-trails act, which allows the federal Surface Transportation Board to maintain an interest in the railway corridor.

By maintaining a transportation interest, the government holds that rail service could be re-established in the corridors.

Steamboat Trace Trail is among five stretches of former railroad that the Surface Transportation Board issued “permits of interim use” prior to the 1999 lawsuit.

In the case of William Schneider vs. the United States, the court ruled that some landowners might be entitled to compensation when a railway is converted to a public access trail.

Landowners can receive up to $10,000 if they can prove damages.

The court said damages might be pursued, if the railroad gained a lease to use the property, rather than fee-simple title to the land.

Of 3,500 parcels along the railroad corridors in Nebraska, court records indicate that 1,330 were fee-simple titles and 1,110 could not be determined.

The landowner must also prove that the lease was not so broad as to allow for a recreational trail and that the lease is not still in effect.

Plaintiffs seeking compensation for a government taking, claim that the railroad vacates the lease when it  files for the interim use permit from the Surface Transportation Board.

Nemaha Natural Resources District Director Bob Hilske said Steamboat Trace Trail was formed under the federal government’s concept of “rail banking.” It means the trail could be returned to railroad use, if the need arises.

The Schneider case had previously been a class action suit, which includes a number of people with common issues. The court has de-certified that class, saying now that cases must be taken on a deed-by-deed basis.

The court ordered a legal notice be placed in 15 Nebraska newspapers. The notice references a 120-day timeline for land owners to pursue compensation by joining the Schneider lawsuit or by filing their own lawsuits.

The court has not ruled on whether actual compensation will be awarded, only that certain landowners may pursue compensation.

At issue is whether the temporary conversion of a corridor from rail transportation to bicycle transportation constitutes a taking.

In the Schneider case, landowners say there is a difference between an occasional train crossing a property and a public trail where anyone is permitted continuously.