Rails to trails proponents in Georgia are consulting their legal experts in the wake of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court Monday in a Wyoming case.
The justices ruled 8-1 that a Wyoming property owner is the owner of a 200-foot-wide trail that crosses his 83-acre parcel in Medicine Bow National Forest.
The trail once was the path of a railroad and is among thousands of miles of abandoned railroads that have been converted to recreational trails. Chief Justice John Roberts said the government had an easement, not ownership. When the railroad dissolved, the property should have gone to the landowner.
City of Rome attorney Andy Davis said he’s not aware of any of the rails to trail projects in the area where the government has simply asserted ownership of abandoned rail lines.
“It’s the railroad that has actually deeded the property, in most cases, for local rails to trails projects,” Davis said.
There’s been no action for several years on plans to convert to a trail the Norfolk Southern line from Six Mile near Georgia Highlands College south to Cave Spring.
Floyd County Commission Chairman Irwin Bagwell said private property owners deeded the land to the railroad’s predecessors back in the 1800s.
“It’s still in the ownership of Norfolk Southern,” Bagwell said. “A lot of the property deeds up and down that line say it must be sold back to the land owner. Different deeds were written in different ways.”
Until attorneys can fully digest the language in the Supreme Court ruling they don’t know how it might apply to pending projects.
Ed McBrayer is executive director of the PATH Foundation, one of Georgia’s leading rails to trails advocates.
“I’m not an attorney and I don’t understand exactly what ramifications this ruling could have but it certainly isn’t a good thing, I don’t think,” McBrayer said.
Still, he said he’s not aware of any projects where the abandoned rail lines have been claimed by government entities.
The Silver Comet Trail is on the old Atlanta to Birmingham CSX rail line. McBrayer said the railroad directly sold the right of way.
“I think there are 34 miles of that track and I think it went for $7.5 million, from Atlanta to Rockmart,” he said.
Rome Assistant City Manager Sammy Rich said the city is negotiating with Norfolk Southern for abandoned lines through Summerville Park — for use in Phase Two of the Redmond Trail project.
“I had hoped that would have been a more expedient process,” he said. “But the word from everybody I’ve talked to is that you can’t expected the railroad to get in a hurry in terms of pricing.”
Phase Two of the Redmond Trail would pick up on the west side of the Martha Berry Highway and follow the abandoned rail line through Summerville Park to Redmond Circle, near the old Florida Rock quarry on the Berry College campus.
Redmond Regional Medical Center CEO John Quinlivan said the hospital controls the strip of the old line that crosses the hospital campus.
He said Redmond officials have talked with the city and are willing to allow their strip to become part of the larger trail.
“We hope that it will come to pass,” Quinlivan said.
He said he was not “100-percent certain” Monday that Redmond owns the right of way, but hospital officials were concerned several years ago that the rail strip might impede plans for growth and “took appropriate action” to eliminate the issue.