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Rail-Trail Fail 

Supreme Court ruling puts bike trail projects in jeopardy

North Bay bicyclists take note: a Supreme Court ruling this week may affect area bike trails created under "rails to trails" initiatives that reclaimed abandoned rail-beds and easements and turned them into recreational corridors.

On Monday, the court ruled 8–1 in favor of a landowner in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al v. United States. At issue in Brandt was a Wyoming landowner whose property is crossed by a now-abandoned Pacific Railroad Company rail line that goes on for several dozen miles. The 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act sought to retain the government's "reversionary interest" in land under rail-beds and easements. Brandt sued the federal government to stop a proposed extension of a rail-trail through his property. He lost in appellate court but found favor with the Roberts Court.

Chief Justice John Roberts posed the pivotal question in his majority opinion: "When the railroad abandons land granted under the 1875 act, does it go to the Government, or to the private party who acquired the land underlying the right of way?" The court said ownership should revert to the landowner.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed the lone dissenting opinion. "By changing course today, the Court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. These former rail corridors are public assets in which we all share and benefit." Residents here know that. The Washington, D.C.–based Rails to Trails Conservancy turned its attention to Sonoma County in November 2009 when it named the West County and Joe Rodota trails its "Trail of the Month."

It noted that the more urbanized Joe Rodota Trail backs up onto numerous businesses and backyards. In a statement, the conservancy said the Supreme Court ruling threatens existing rail-trails, "mainly in the West, that utilize federally granted rights-of-way." Sotomayor warned that the court's ruling opens the door to landowners along rail-trails whose financial interest in making a property claim may trump public-interest altruism.

Citing a Justice Department study, Sotomayor wrote, "Lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."

Tom Gogola is contributing editor at the 'Bohemian.' Open Mic is a weekly feature in the 'Bohemian.' We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write openmic@bohemian.com.

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