A group of property owners neighboring the Albany County Rail Trail are suing the federal government over the recreational corridor.
A lawsuit filed by several homeowners in 2009 was recently upgraded to a class action lawsuit. Some 300 neighbors of the more than 9-mile Rail Trail corridor were mailed notices offering them the opportunity to join the lawsuit, and about 100 of them are signed up as of this report.
The original complaint bore the name of 12 individuals and one company. About one month later, an amended complaint was filed with dozens of additional plaintiffs. After months of proceedings, Judge Lawrence Block of the United States Court of Federal Claims granted the case class action status in early March of this year, clearing the way for other potential plaintiffs to be notified. The court’s schedule calls for a final class member list to be submitted later this year, with an August deadline for potential plaintiffs to sign up.
The law firm of Baker Sterchi Cowden and Rice in St. Louis, Mo. has also established a toll-free hotline. Class members must have owned eligible property prior to July 8, 2003.
The lawsuit hinges on the federal Trails Act, part of which deals with the repurposing of unused railway beds into recreational resources. The act allows for the federal government to grant easements and rights-of-way in some cases.
Attorney Steve Wald, who specializes in such matters and is representing the class, said the lawsuit does not threaten the trail itself, but rather argues landowners’ Fifth Amendment rights were bypassed when the county acquired the rail corridor.
“By analogy, think of any other time when a local government entity takes land and turns it into your typical public park. … They can do it, they just have to compensate the landowners,” he said.
The railroad company never owned the corridor, he continued, but rather had an easement established over private land.
Albany County acquired the Rail Trail easement in 2009 from the Canadian Pacific Railway using $700,000 in grant money. The railroad company moved to abandon the 9-mile section of rail in 2003 and the county at that time launched the process to acquire the corridor through “railbanking,” the term established in the 1983 Trails Act for converting disused railways.
Wald argued that law robs landowners of their property rights.
“If the government had allowed state law to run its course, then the railroad line would have been abandoned and the landowners would have been entitled to possession and control,” he said.
The lawsuit is being leveled against the federal government and local entities are not involved. In fact, local officials were unaware of the lawsuit.
Bethlehem Supervisor John Clarkson said he was not familiar with the matter, but reaffirmed the town’s commitment to work with the county and independent groups to see the entire length of the trail opened. The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, a private group that has made efforts to open up public access to the trail, was similarly unaware of the lawsuit. Officials in the Albany County Executive’s Office declined comment, pointing out the county is not a party in the action.
A call to the U.S. Department of Justice, whose lawyers are handling the defense, was not returned.
Wald declined to discuss exactly what kind of compensation he’s hoping to secure, but said his firm has reached a “tentative agreement” with the federal government to work towards a settlement. A joint appraisal process will get underway later this year, he said, and that will determine what kind of damages might be paid out.
The federal government would pay any damages awarded.
Wald said his firm keeps track of rail-to-trail projects and examines them to see if a potential case can be made. The firm has handled similar cases all over the country.
Much of the Rail Trail remains closed to public use. A 1.8-mile section was opened to the public in Bethlehem in 2011 thanks to a public-private partnership with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy and its Friends of the Rail Trail arm. In the summer of 2012, a 2.4-mile section in New Scotland and Voorheesville.
Opening the entire trail is an expensive proposition because bridges across several spans need repair or replacement. Doing all the work would require about $8 million, far more than what the county has secured in grant money. County officials are determined to pursue the trail without cost to the taxpayer.
Wald emphasized no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit, the trail itself will not be affected.
“We couldn’t stop it even if we wanted to. And we don’t,” he said.