Federal claims case stalled for neighboring Rock Island line landowners seeking compensation

BY Roxie Murphy, ADVOCATE Staff Writer
Posted 7/3/19

BELLE — “Clients in my case are sort of stalled out, because again, the government will not move until this trail use agreement is reached,” said Meghan Largent, attorney for nearly …

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Federal claims case stalled for neighboring Rock Island line landowners seeking compensation


BELLE — “Clients in my case are sort of stalled out, because again, the government will not move until this trail use agreement is reached,” said Meghan Largent, attorney for nearly 500 landowners along the 144-mile corridor of the Rock Island line.

Largent spoke with meeting goers at the Belle-Bland Community Center June 25 to discuss where the landowners’ compensation case, Abbott vs. United States, is in litigation.

Largent and Lindsay Brinton, both now with Lewis Rice LLC, have been working on the case since 2015 when Ameren UE, the railroad owner, announced that they planned to sell or donate the land for trail use. Both Largent and Brinton worked the case for Arent Fox from 2015-19, before moving their practice to Lewis Rice. Largent mentioned the case was being delayed by the government for several reasons, and felt this situation “is the worst situation for landowners.”

“This is just me editorializing; I do think this is the worst case scenario for property owners. This shrugging the shoulders and saying ‘I don’t know. We will talk to you again in six months to a year.’ I think the best thing would be some finality either way that the landowners can order their affairs,” Largent said. “I don’t advocate for the trail, I don’t advocate against the trail. My case is a case for compensation, for what the landowners lost. Many of my clients are against the trail. Several are for the trail. Some are ambivalent. But for their lives and their properties — it is hard when you have someone on their way out owning (the railroad) for four-and-a-half years, and doesn’t really have an interest in maintaining it and keeping it up.”

Largent said landowners who want to re-fence their property, install gates, grade their roads, and various other things landowners do to maintain their land are being stalled by the indecision.

Landowners along the Rock Island Railroad are suing the federal government for compensation of the taking of their land in the Abbott vs. United States case, pending in the court of federal claims. The federal government is challenging the law of when or if reimbursement is necessary, depending on whether or not a trail is ever built.

“How that affects you, is because the Department of Justice (DOJ) has taken this position, they are not going to move this case until the court decides this new policy,” Largent explained. “The court is going to tell them, ‘Stop it. We decided this. The law is the law, we are not changing it.’ Or they are going to win and things are going to go in a different direction.”

Largent said she is going to try to make as much progress (on the case) as she can until then.

“The DOJ will not admit liability until there is a trail use agreement,” Largent said. “And as we know here, there is no trail use agreement. The current order expires August 20 of this year. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot because it has been extended over and over again and can extend it again.”

Although the courts have previously ruled that government taking of private land without just compensation violates the Fifth Amendment, the claims court Abbott vs. U.S. is in will not rule until the challenged law is settled.

“That’s what is going on in your case,” Largent said. “I don’t have any information that you don’t know. As I understand it, they are still negotiating.”

However, Largent speculated that SB 196 passing both the House of Representatives and Senate to establish the Rock Island Endowment Fund was a good indication a deal between the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and Ameren would be forthcoming.

“My personal take on it, that’s a sign towards this deal working out. I don’t know, I am just reading tea leaves here,” Largent told her clients and meeting goers.

As for the 500 or so clients that stayed with Largent and Brinton since they went to Lewis Rice, Largent said they fall into one of three categories.

“We had to pull everyone’s deed to their property. We pulled the original deeds to the railroad — most of them are circa 1901— and your tax information to prove you still owned it. We created a snapshot — a satellite overview map of your property and where the railroad was. We put that in a bunch of binders by county and shipped it up to Washington to the DOJ and they combed through it and came back with a bunch of objections ranging anywhere from the railroad actually owns this land to this isn’t a trust or this person passed away and we need a death certificate. We’ve now narrowed it down to three major issues:

There is a part of this that the railroad owns in fee or at least the deeds to RR would indicate that I can’t make a credible argument under Missouri law that they did grant the fee of state to the railroad. Those folks have been notified more than a year ago that I don’t think their claims are going to go anywhere. The railroad actually owned it and they can dispose of it as they wish.

We have another set of folks on the other side of the spectrum that the government said, ‘yep, they agree.’ Under Missouri law, this is an easement and it didn’t allow for trail use. It would have reverted back to the landowner upon abandonment. Those people are completely stalled right now for this other issue: until the trail use agreement is reached, or the court tells them ‘you owe these people money.’

We have another group of people where the government agrees that the railroad didn’t own it. The railroad had an easement, we agree with you. Under Missouri law, this is an easement, but we think it’s broad enough to include a public park. — So an easement by definition is a right to use somebody else’s property for a specific purpose. The government is arguing that this specific purpose of those documents from 1901 is a railroad and a public park. I think that is a horrific misreading of Missouri law.

Largent added that several of the modern deeds they pulled state that the landowner owns to the center of the abandoned Chicago Rock Island Railroad. Melvin Keeney, a landowner in the Belle area and one of Largent’s clients who falls in category two, came forward and asked if there was any possibility the landowners along the line would receive anything. Largent said yes.

“They are never going to turn that loose, and we have to live with that,” Keeney said, adding that he would like to talk about just compensation. “What if they want to do something 50 years from now that is absolutely the rage, and they put this thing in a vacuum tube, or whatever it is, high speed transport. How is Melvin Keeney going to get anything out of that?”

Largent explained that this lawsuit is the landowners’ one chance to get paid for the use of that corridor.

“But if I get paid this time, it will be for everything in the future,” Keeney said. “That really is not very good, is it.”

Largent said it is the best remedy they have come up with.

“We do have to remind the appraisers, landowners here are not just being paid for the fact that they didn’t get their land back, and it is not just the difference between a train on your property or a trail, it’s the difference between having a park on your property and “future railroad” and it is a railroad as we can envision it now, or a hundred years from now.”

Keeney said he asked his grandfather why he gave his land to the railroad, and his grandfather said he wanted to cut the timber and ship it on the railroad, along with other crops. He said besides that, if they ever stopped using it as a railroad, the landowners get the land back.

“What happened to that?” Keeney asked.

Largent said under state law, that is what would happen, but federal always preempts state law, and federal law said something different.

She added that it has been four-and-a-half years since the Surface Transportation Board (STB) declared an interim trail use, and the statute of limitations to sue the federal government is up in 18 months — six years from the declaration. Any claims for money damages have to be made before February 2020.

Jan Sassman of Prairie Star Farms asked if they needed to be encouraging a deal.

“So we need to get the legislature and Ameren connected on the track in the next 18 months, that should be the pressure we as citizens should be pushing for to get this going for those folks that have an opportunity here,” Sassman said.

Belle Alderman Ken Stanfield asked if the compensation for the land also took into account the value of the soil and before and after use. Largent said it does.

Greg Harris, executive director of Missouri Rock Island Trail, was present to answer questions. He explained that Ameren purchased the former Rock Island line to help transport fuel to one of their plants. They use the line near St. Louis and park their coal carts outside of the Beaufort area.

“About 30 miles of the 144 miles are within the city limits of towns,” said Harris. “I want to point out that Ameren is prepared to donate this, which is really valuable property. One of the reasons it took so long is because they had the whole railroad surveyed before the tracks were removed.”

Farm Bureau’s Leslie Holloway, senior director of regulatory affairs, said Farm Bureau members do not plan to move one way or another in pushing to get something in their favor as far as the trail goes.

“We would prefer the landowners get their lands back,” Holloway said. “That is where we have been all along. We are glad that DNR has actually taken a look at how much this will cost the state. Trail advocates had been in on developing an agreement and none of the landowners knew about it until it came out.”

Holloway said landowners and legislators said they didn’t want anyone to get their land and wanted to know how the state would pay for the new park. She said MSP came back with estimates in the tens of millions. (The cost estimates to maintain a trail park did not include an estimate of the benefits to the state).

“At this point everyone understands what the process is,” Holloway said. “Everyone has figured out we have to wait to get paid.”

Missouri State Parks (MSP)Deputy Director Mike Sutherland said MSP continues to be in negotiations with Ameren.

“We get closer everyday and our hope is an agreement will be made so we don’t have to ask for an extension, but if we have to, we will,” Sutherland said. “We continue to have meetings and actively work on closing an agreement.”