Fred Meijer Heartland Trail seeking ruling against farmers

By Ryan Jeltema • Last Updated 5:22 pm on Friday, December 02, 2011

GRAND RAPIDS — The Friends of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail group is asking a judge to rule in its favor on two important issues in an ownership lawsuit.

The trail friends group is seeking an opinion from U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell that it owns a 100-foot-wide strip of land through farmland owned by family farmers Ray and JoAnn Christensen.

The friends group also wants an opinion stating the Christensens have no right to trespass on the strip, which formerly was a CSX Transportation railroad. The strip runs between M-91 and Vining Road just south of Peck Road near the former Ore-Ida factory complex.

The trail friends paved that portion of the trail last summer as the last step in completing the 42-mile Fred Meijer Heartland Trail from Greenville to Alma.

The trail friends group filed a lawsuit in March alleging the Christensens’ farm operation trespassed on the corridor, causing damage to the railroad bed, and their son, Joe, hired a group of men to cut down 96 trees along the trail corridor for firewood.

Filings in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids say loss of the trees has devalued the trail corridor by removing a source of shade and natural beauty.

The Christensens claim they took over ownership of the former railroad bed after it was abandoned and they had every right to cut down the trees because it was their property. They claim two families that earlier owned their land granted the Pere Marquette Railroad Co. an easement, which ended when the railroad operation ceased.

However, the trail friends’ attorney, Geoffrey Gillis of Grand Rapids, wrote in court documents that the railroad purchased the land outright, not just an easement.

The Christensens also claim the railroad bed is only 66 feet wide, not 100, based on valuation maps of the area. Their attorney, Henry Emrich of Grand Rapids, alleges the maps have yellow stickers stating, “Typical width is 66 feet,” referring to the railroad corridor.

Gillis wrote in court documents that the sticker for the map showing the Christensens’ property shouldn’t be there. The maps have smaller notations of “50” on both sides of the railroad bed, indicating the corridor extends 50 feet on both sides of the center line.

The trail friends are not asking for a judgment on whether the Christensens were responsible for the trees being cut down and how much they should pay the trail friends group to compensate for the alleged loss.

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