Controversy over Rock Island Rail Corridor Trail could derail development

By John Breslin | Mar 9, 2019

INDEPENDENCE – A county and transportation agency's failure to develop a recreational trail along a former railway line under the provisions of a federal law makes it easier for landowners to block its development and file lawsuits under state law, according to one property law expert.

Jackson County and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority paid more than $50 million to the Union Pacific Rail Road for 17.7 miles of track and surrounding land after a 2015 agreement. The money was raised through a bond issue so the total cost is likely to rise to $80 million, according to multiple reports.

But the Rock Island Rail Corridor Trail, part of which has already opened, is now mired in lawsuits as owners of adjacent land claim the deal was struck in an underhanded way, most notably that Jackson County received an exemption from a federal law because it claimed the rail tracks would remain in place.

Under the deal, the buyers promised to maintain track for a possible future commuter line and to abide by certain freight line obligations. This allowed the county to receive an exemption to the Federal Rails to Trails Act.

Professor R. Wilson Freyermuth   University of Missouri School of Law

On Jan. 28, landowners and their attorneys filed affidavits and photographs with the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees railway lines, in Jackson County Circuit Court revealing track was removed from much of the trail already developed.

Lawsuits have been filed, with landowners arguing they should be either be compensated or their land returned if easements had been given to Union Pacific for the right to cross.

R. Wilson Freyermuth, a professor of property law at the University of Missouri, said the Federal Rails to Trails Act essentially allows a nonprofit, civic group or local government to take over a rail line and adjacent land and turn it into a trail, so called railbanking.

The legislation includes provisions that the rail company can take back the land to run a line at a future date, but that is a "negligible risk," Freyermuth told the St. Louis Record.

Under the legislation, landowners "could not use state law to literally prevent conversion of those rail corridors to trails," he said.

Landowners can file a "takings" claim for compensation from the federal government.

Freyermuth noted that under the Jackson County/Union Pacific deal, railbanking does not apply and that, therefore, landowners are "not precluded" from taking action in state court, including to prevent the development.

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