Notice of “Rails to Trails” Constitutes a Taking

On May 29, 2020, the Federal Circuit Court o Appeals issued a decision in Caquelin v U.S., No. 19-1385 (Fed. Cir. 2020), which held that a categorical taking analysis applies to the evaluation of whether a Notice of Intended Trail use constitutes a taking.

In the early development of our County, railroads were critical to development.  Development of railroad networks was very important.  So important, that railroads were given the power of eminent domain.  The railroads used the power to negotiate or take easements over private property for the use of running tracks and operating lines.  But, as the Country developed, modes of transportation changed making railroads less important as a means of transportation.  Many railroad companies abandoned low traffic lines and the associated easements.

In the Caquelin case, Norma Caquelin owned farmland in Iowa which was subject to a railroad’s right of way.  The railroad applied to the Federal Surface Transportation Board to initiate an abandonment of a rail line.  This meant that the land would revert to Ms. Caquelin under State Law.  The abandonment was blocked when the process for converting the rail line to a trail was invoked through the issuance of a Notice of Interim Trail use that effectively froze the abandonment.

Under the Transportation Act of 1920, a rail carrier must first apply to the Federal Surface Transportation Board to initiate an abandonment.  The Act provides a mechanism to block the abandonment if a qualified entity is willing to convert the rail line to recreational trail use, commonly called, “Rails-to-Trails.”  However, when the land is no longer in the railroad’s control and instead subject to government agency action, a Fifth Amendment compensable taking occurs when the terms of the original easement granted to the rail carrier are not broad enough to encompass trail use.  Preseault v. United States, 100 F.3d 1525, 1552 (Fed. Cir. 1966).

On appeal, the Federal Circuit remanded for additional evidence.  The Court of Federal Claims, once again awarded $900 for temporary taking damages.  In the second appeal, the government argued that the Federal Circuit should abandon its prior precedent because “the Supreme Court’s decision in Tahoe-Sierra requires a general regulatory taking analysis under Penn Central and that a temporary stat should not be treated as a categorical approach.

The Federal Circuit rejected these arguments.  The Court characterized the nature of the government action, explaining that the Notice of Interim Trail Use provided “a right of occupation by someone other than the landowner” and “barred the landowner from using the ground burdened by the easement.”  Although temporary, this action constitutes a categorical taking.  A physical taking is compensable even when temporary.

The decision certainly acknowledges the importance of safe guarding and following precedent.  My question is why utilize such effort to reverse a $900 judgment with two trials and two appeals.  Perhaps it will appeal again because there appears to any logic or sense in its litigation.


Posted in Categorical Taking, Rails-to-Trails
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