Compensation at issue in Kansas rails-to-trails suit

Thursday, March 20, 2008 | 4:21 p.m. CDT; updated 11:44 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

WICHITA, Kan. — Two Kansas landowners have sued for compensation after the government converted old railroad lines into recreational trails on their property.

Jerramy and Erin Pankratz, of Butler County, learned this month that a federal judge will consider if the government should pay them for the nearly three years it held a rail easement for an abandoned track in the back of their 11 acres.

The cities of Andover and Augusta are debating whether to convert the land into a trail.

"We think that was a big win for us, because we're getting a hearing on an issue after a long delay," said Thor Hearne, a St. Louis lawyer who specializes in these types of cases.

McPherson County cattleman Royer Barclay will likely need to get help from Congress to get paid for a former railway converted to a trail that cuts through his 300-acre farm south of Lindsborg.

A precedent-setting case by a federal court in Georgia two years ago dismissed a similar claim, saying the land wasn't taken until the railroad stopped running, not when the trail was built.

The ruling means Barclay and about 100 other landowners across the country likely won't get paid, because they didn't file their claims until learning the trails were being developed — more than six years after railways were abandoned.

Barclay could get help from a pair of bipartisan bills sponsored by Missouri senators and representatives that would retroactively change the law so he and the other landowners could get paid.

The Trails Act Technical Correction Act of 2007, as it's being dubbed, is being considered by subcommittees in the House and Senate.

"The landowners want this law passed, and it would save money," Hearne said. "The property owners now have to file a lawsuit, and it costs the taxpayers money. This would make it easier to negotiate trails."

Controversies over rail-trail conversions have been brewing since Congress passed the federal Trails Act 25 years ago. It allowed the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to give unused rail lines back to states to use as recreational trails.

The act has converted more than 1,400 dormant railroad tracks to trails for hiking, biking, walking and horseback riding across the country.

The U.S. railways have held much of the land since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the government, by law, owns all abandoned rail lines.

Some landowners have taken exception to the law, saying the land, if returned, could dramatically increase their property values.

Appraisals in some areas show a rail-trail can decrease property values, and landowners say it can cut their land in two and lead to heavier traffic.

"It's been kind of frustrating, because if you have a four-wheeler or something, and you leave it parked there, you can get a ticket for it," Jerramy Pankratz said. "But technically it's our land."

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