Federal lawsuit claims land isn't railroads' property to sell, but legal expert said each property is different.
Plans to expand Legacy Trail have some landowners along the unused rail line from Palmer Ranch to downtown Sarasota questioning how the land is being transferred to the county, which has led them to sue in federal court for compensation.
County voters in November OK’d spending $65 million for the project that will involve approximately eight miles of new trail and amenity construction and bridges over Bee Ridge Road and Clark Road.
At issue is the strip of land’s former status as a railroad corridor controlled by Seminole Gulf Railway and CSXT Transportation Inc. The attorney of the Missouri firm of Larson O’Brien LLP, Thor Hearne, represents more than 150 parties and is alleging “Seminole Gulf and CSXT had no right to transfer or sell any interest in these owners’ land.”
“The railroad is gone,” he said. “So the owners had every right to exclusive use of that property.”
The Federal Surface Transportation Board, an agency tasked with oversight of abandonment of rail lines, ruled in May the so-called “railbanked” corridor could be made into a recreational trail, which triggered the lawsuit.
Hearne conducted a similar federal lawsuit with Sarasota property owners about 10 years ago during the construction of the original Legacy Trail in 2009.
The crux of Hearne’s argument is his contention that the railroads were granted an easement to build and use the rail corridor. Once the railroad abandoned the use and easement of the track, the land should legally revert to the original owner.
In his previous court action, some property owners were successful, he said, adding “nobody got less than $10,000.”
But Danaya Wright, a professor of railroad and property law at the University of Florida, said such a lawsuit is a “complicated interplay of laws.” She helped read through every Sarasota land deed during the 2009 case and said court victories aren’t a given.
“The original landowners have already been paid,” she said. “One hundred and fifty years later, people are buying and selling … their land knowing that their neighbor was a rail corridor. What right do they have to be compensated again when their neighboring land gets changed to a recreational trail?”
In any case, the lawsuit shouldn’t adversely impact the county’s ability to extend the Legacy Trail.
“I can’t comment on the lawsuit in terms of how it will end up, but I will tell you that it’s not uncommon that there are lawsuits tied to railbanked corridors,” said Doug Hattaway with the Trust for Public Lands.