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Anna F. Nordhus Family Trust v. United States

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The constitutionality of the National Trails System Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1241 et seq. is questioned as violative of the Fifth Amendment. Both parties moved for summary judgment on liability.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In Kansas, a railroad right-of-way easement that is no longer used for railway purposes reverts to the original property owner in fee simple. 

    Facts.

    The Anna F. Nordhus Family Trust and several other Kansas real property owners (Plaintiffs) granted an easement to Union Pacific Railroad so that railroad tracks could be laid and trains could run along an 8.13-mile corridor of land. After a period of use, Union Pacific discontinued service along the corridor. Thereafter, the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) informed Plaintiffs that it planned to use the abandoned railroad corridor for trail use, permitted by the National Trails System Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1241 et seq. (the Trails Act), a procedure known as “railbanking.” Plaintiffs sued the United States (Defendant) alleging that the Trails Act, which prevented the 8.13-mile corridor from reverting back to Plaintiff property owners once Union Pacific abandoned its use, constituted a taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment on liability. The court heard both parties’ motions.

    Issue.

    Whether in Kansas, a railroad right-of-way easement that is no longer used for railway purposes reverts to the original property owner in fee simple.

    Held.

    Yes. Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on liability is granted. In Kansas, a railroad right-of-way easement that is no longer used for railway purposes reverts to the original property owner in fee simple.

    Discussion.

    Plaintiffs argue that because Union Pacific abandoned its use of the railroad tracks along the 8.13-mile corridor, the easement naturally ends, and the property must revert back to Plaintiffs as fee simple owners. However, Plaintiffs claim that the Trails Act prevents the reversion because federal law holds the abandoned railroad path and converts it to a recreational trail on an interim basis. Defendant claims that the use of Union Pacific’s former easement as a recreational trail on an interim basis is permissible under Kansas and federal law. The court must determine whether the 8.13-mile corridor would have reverted back to Plaintiffs had it not been for the application of the Trails Act. The Kansas Supreme Court has held that railroads do not own fee simple title to the narrow strips of land taken as right-of-way, regardless of how they are acquired. Further, once the right-of-way ceases to be used for railway purposes, the land “returns to its prior status as an integral part of the freehold to which it belonged prior” to being used for railway purposes. Harvest Queen Mill & Elevator Co. v. Sanders, 370 P.2d 419, 423 (Kan.1962). Consequently, Plaintiffs here held a fee simple interest in the real property subject to a railroad easement. Under the federal Trails Act, however, reversion of the easement to the fee simple landowner is blocked. If a reversionary interest is blocked, the interim trail is deemed a taking and the holder of the reversionary interest, which does not vest because of the trail use, is entitled to compensation. Here, the evidence clearly indicates that Union Pacific abandoned the railroad easements it held along the corridor. Nevertheless, Defendant claims that use of the railroad easement as a recreational trail constitutes use for railway purposes under the Kansas Supreme Court’s holding in Sanders. A permissible use means for use of railroad operations, including the installation of tracks and running railroads across, not removing the tracks for purposes of creating a recreational trail. Defendant further claims that the 8.13-mile corridor may be utilized at some point in the future for rail service and thus, the property should not revert back to Plaintiff property owners, but be held for such possible future use. However, there is no evidence to suggest that future rail use has been contemplated. Additionally, the transfer of the railroad easement back to Plaintiff property owners in fee simple and the removal of all tracks along the corridor suggest that any future rail use is unrealistic. 


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