LOWELL TOWNSHIP — Local landowners along the Fred Meijer River Valley Rail Trail may soon be entitled to some long overdue funds after a recent ruling in the state of Wyoming has now paved the way in regards to easements along trail systems.
Two separate cases, one in the settlement stage and another yet to be filed, involving local landowners against the federal government are expected to conclude in favor of the landowners after the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding property owners in Wyoming.
The case of Marvin M. Brandt v. United States challenged the right of the United States to convert a federally granted right-of-way into a rail-trail, a right established by Congress and long fought for and protected by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
In March, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Wyoming landowner in an 8-1 decision in the dispute over a proposed bicycle trail that would follow the route of an abandoned railroad line bisecting Brandts’ property.
The court ruled that railroad rights-of-way are subject to the same common law rules as any other easement. In doing so, the court rejected the government’s argument that federal land grants operate under an entirely different set of rules from other property.
According to attorney Meghan S. Largent with Arent Fox LLP, who presented several Lowell area landowners with information during a meeting Thursday evening at the Lowell VFW post, the Supreme Court ruling sets a precedent for similar court cases in Michigan, including two that involve the Fred Meijer River Valley Rail Trail from Greenville to Lowell.
“The Federal Government tried to claim the railroad right-of-ways in Wyoming,” she said. “With the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the plaintiffs, the landowners, we think that it has laid the groundwork that we now have a very good chance of success. If you’re a landowner between Lowell and Belding, there’s a very high likelihood that the government is going to stipulate that it is viable and move straight to evaluation of the property. They’ve already lost, there’s no reason for this to be brought to the court again to get the same result.”
The class action lawsuit of Dana Hodges v. The United State, filed in October of 2011, involves 66 property owners from Greenville to Lowell and is currently in settlement
According to Largent, another pending class action lawsuit — Thomas Faussett v. The United States — will give property owners who were not a part of the Hodges case a chance to file a claim.
Largent estimates there are more than 80 property owners who could potentially file a claim in the suit. The will have until Sept. 15 to file.
The former rail line, formerly owned by the Pere Marquette Railroad Co., sold its interest in the rail line to Mid-Michigan Railroad Inc. in 1987.
In 2008, the rail line was officially abandoned and the real estate was sold for interim trail use for nearly $1.3 million.
According to Largent, the Friends of the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail and Mid-Michigan Railroad entered into a trial-use agreement for the right-of-way between Lowell and Greenville in July 2010.
The Friends Group eventually sold a portion of the line and donated the remaining portion to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which owns the easement and operates the trail today.
But Largent said the landowners affected by the former railway easements are entitled to a settlement, and any damages that result of having the easement on their property.
Faussett, a resident of Eureka Township, deals with the issue of the trail-way dividing his property. The trail actually runs through his driveway and affects any potential possibilities of trying to sell portions of his land into individual parcels.
Faussett continues to farm and must drive his equipment across the trail-way and 66-foot-wide easement.
“The easement has been here since 1984 when the railroad put it in,” he said. “Now that the DNR has taken it over, I’m not getting anywhere with it.”
Faussett said he has attempted to work with the DNR and River Valley Rail Trail Group, but after several falling-outs, he had no choice but to file a lawsuit.
“I wasn’t initially looking for compensation other than permanent access across the property, but I never received a response,” he said. “I didn’t want to stop any progress with the trail, I just wanted access across it and have typical use of my property.”
According to Largent, the lawsuit is strictly seeking compensation from the federal government, and will in no way impact the future plans of the former railway becoming part of the 125-mile interconnecting trail-way throughout Michigan.
“This is about getting landowners their fair compensation for letting the government use their land,” she said. “These property owners aren’t against a trail way at all, but they deserve fair compensation.”