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Wyoming Case Another Victory for Land Rights

Today the United States Supreme Court decided the case Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, ruling with an 8-1 majority that abandoned railroad easements under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 do not necessarily transfer to the government upon abandonment but instead to the landowner.

The case originates from Albany County, in Foxpark. In 1976, the federal government conveyed rights to Melvin and Lulu Brandt to an 83-acre parcel, which is surrounded by Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. This “land patent” reserved easements over the land, but stated expressly that after five years of non-use the easements to roads and rights-of-way would terminate. It also reserved railroad rights to the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railway Company for its railroad rights of way, but did not state what would happen upon abandonment. A rail line went over the Brandt parcel for about a half mile, 200 feet in width. The line was officially abandoned in 1996, with the removal of tracks and ties completed in 2004.

The federal government then sued in 2006, seeking to quiet title in the rail right-of-way by having it declared the property of the United States. (Of course they did.) Marvin Brandt (son of Melvin and Lulu) was the only land owner who fought back. “Brandt asserted that the stretch of the right of way crossing his family’s land was a mere easement that was extinguished upon abandonment by the railroad, so that, under common law property rules, he enjoyed full title to the land without the burden of the easement.” (Pg. 7 of the slip opinion.) After losing in both the District Court and at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the courts concluded the United States retained a craftily concocted “implied reversionary interest” to the rail rights of way, Brandt was finally vindicated at the Supreme Court.

One must appreciate the power of precedent sometimes:

Brandt contends that the right of way granted under the 1875 Act was an easement, so that when the railroad abandoned it, the underlying land (Brandt’s Fox Park parcel) simply became unburdened of the easement. The Government does not dispute that easements normally work this way, but maintains that the 1875 Act granted the railroads something more than an easement, reserving an implied reversionary interest in that something more to the United States. The Government loses that argument today, in large part because it won when it argued the opposite before this Court more than 70 years ago, in the case of Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262 (1942).

(Pg. 8, emphasis added.)

In the earlier case, when a railroad company wanted to drill below its easement after discovering oil, the United States successfully argued that since it was only an easement over the land the railroad had no rights to drill under the land. Thus, when the federal government granted the Brandts their land with no conditions on the reversion of the railroad rights-of-way, the Brandts acquired the rights upon the railroad’s abandonment of their easement. “[I]f the beneficiary of the easement abandons it, the easement disappears, and the landowner resumes his full and unencumbered interest in the land.” (Pg. 11.)

In effect, this ruling could close a half mile portion of the Medicine Bow Rail-Trail, unless the government wishes to purchase a new right-of-way over the abandoned line and Brandt is willing to accept. Given how much they sunk into this lawsuit, it might be fairly inexpensive by comparison. However, the precedent will go even farther and ensure landowners’ rights against future attempts by the federal government to turn abandoned easements into public rights of way over private property.

It’s excellent that this case was decided by an 8-1 majority, close to the 9-0 victory the Sacketts won against the EPA two years ago. Certainly, not every recent land rights case commands such a majority at the U.S. Supreme Court, but overall property rights have won victories few would have expected in the wake of the awful Kelo decision in 2005. Congratulations to Mr. Brandt and our friends at Mountain States Legal Foundation for successfully representing him!

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Sunday, 22 October 2017
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