WASHINGTON – Landowners along the yet-to-be-built Fred Meijer River Valley Trail may be in for a “very significant” financial windfall courtesy of the federal government.
A U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge in Washington, D.C., issued a ruling on Tuesday in favor of the landowners along the trail from Lowell to Greenville, indicating the government improperly took land by allowing the trail to be built.
The case now heads into a new phase in which the court will determine how much the landowners will receive in a financial settlement. The landowners’ attorney, Mark “Thor” Hearne of Missouri, said the awards could be “very significant.”
“For many, the trail cuts off their access to adjoining land and roads or literally cuts their land in two,” he said. “Past cases suggest this ‘severance’ damage to their property can be quite significant.”
Appraisers will determine how much the government owes the owners of the more than 80 properties along the trail. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is defending the government, can appeal those values and take the matter to trial.
“How quickly this happens is dependent on how cooperative the Justice Department is with the process,” Hearne said. “But, I see no reason why this process should take any longer than five or six months.”
Federal Court of Claims Judge Edward Damich will establish deadlines for the appraisal process in November.
Dana Hodges, the first plaintiff in the case, was not surprised by Damich’s ruling. Hodges said the courts have ruled against the government in similar cases around the country.
“We assumed this would be the outcome,” he said.
The 2-year-old lawsuit stems from the federal Surface Transportation Board’s decision allowing the Friends of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail to build a recreational trail on the former Mid-Michigan Railroad corridor.
The corridor extends nearly 22 miles from Lowell to Greenville and nearly three miles in and around Greenville.
Damich ruled that railroad companies purchased an easement when the corridor was established in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His opinion says the railroad easement was limited to use as a railroad, which does not include a recreational trail.
Justice Department lawyers contended that a trail should be a permitted use of the corridor because the railroad still could convert it back to use later.
Damich ruled the landowners along the rail bed should have received the railroad easement back when it ceased being used as a railroad under state laws. The ruling says the federal government violated the Fifth Amendment by taking the land without fair compensation and allowing it to be used as a trail.
Eighteen landowners along a separate trail to be developed on a former 16-mile Mid-Michigan Railroad corridor between Lowell and Ionia won a similar judgment from Court of Claims Judge Susan Braden on Oct. 13.
Hearne currently is or has been litigating 28 similar cases across the country since 1998. He won an $8.15 million judgment from the government in a 2006 class action lawsuit.
The financial awards paid to the landowners will be just compensation from the government for taking the land, required in the Constitution.
Hodges said landowners along the trail are working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which now owns the trail, to draft agreements allowing the landowners to cross the trail and access all of their land.
The parties met recently at the Otisco Township Hall. The outcome of those negotiations could partially determine how much the federal government is required to pay the landowners.
“Everybody had their say on that,” Hodges said. “Obviously if we can’t get a fair easement it can affect the value of the property across the tracks. If they restrict us from being able to do things with our property that we could do before, that will affect the value of the land.”
Hodges said the landowners along the trail generally support its development. The lawsuit is about fighting for fairness rather than trying to block the trail or get rich from the government.
“We’re looking forward to the trail being done. We think it’s a good thing for the area,” he said. “It really was a fairness issue. We don’t expect to get a lot of funds.”