Brief Fact Summary. Congress enacted a Rails-to-Trails Act to make public recreational use out of discontinued railroad rights of way. The Plaintiffs, J. Paul Presault and Patricia Preseault (Plaintiffs), as fee simple owners of the land over which the tracks formerly ran, claimed that the conversion of the property was a taking by the Defendants, the United States (United States).
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A public recreational trail was not within the scope of an existing easement for railroad purposes. Therefore, the conversion to public recreational trail was a taking of a new easement for a new purpose, for which the landowners are entitled compensation. In addition, since the easement was abandoned, the opening of the public recreational trails was also a physical taking of the Plaintiffs’ property rights.
The question is not what is technically possible to do in the future, but what was done in the past.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Did the Railroad acquire only an easement or a fee simple estate in the railroad right of way?
If it acquired an easement, was the easement limited to railroad purposes only or was it broad enough to encompass future use as public recreational trails?
Had the easements terminated by abandonment prior to the ‘taking’ for public recreational trail use?
Held. Under Vermont property law, the estate acquired by a railway is no more than is needed for the railroads limited purpose and that typically means an easement not a fee simple estate.
Since the easements are limited as a matter of law to railroad purposes, the Court could not find that the scope of easement would encompass a public recreational trail.
Vermont recognizes that simple non-use does not extinguish an easement, something more is needed such as conduct by the owner manifesting a present intent to relinquish the easement or a purpose inconsistent with future existence. However, removal of the tracks and equipment was inconsistent with future existence and no attempts were made to reconstruct. The limited collection of licensing fees for crossing was not enough to defeat the abandonment.
Discussion. The court looked to Vermont Property law to determine the scope of the easement even though the title contained fee simple language. The case law limited the scope of the easement to railroad purposes.