Private landowners say their rights are being trampled on by hikers when the state implements “Rails to Trails” programs. The landowners claim the property should be theirs now that the railroad is finished with the right-of-way. One state recently won the court’s approval to keep its trail intact, including pieces that cross through private property. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Katherine Glover reports:
Private landowners say their rights are being trampled on by hikers when the state
implements “Rails to Trails” programs. The landowners claim the property should be
theirs now that the railroad is finished with the right-of-way. One state recently won the
court’s approval to keep its trail intact, including pieces that cross through private
property. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Katherine Glover reports:
Mike Sandberg doesn’t want a public trail going through his backyard.
“Every time anybody goes down it the dogs are barking and I didn’t move out in the
country to hear all the stuff going on with everybody’s, you know, it’s kind of a pain.”
Sandberg bought the land he lives on from his brother a couple years ago. One thing he
liked about the property was that it had a dirt trail running through it, and he thought he
could pave it and use it as a driveway.
The trail used to be a railroad bed. The railroad company laid the tracks in the 1890’s,
after getting the rights to go through hundreds of different properties. Usually they only
had an easement to use the property, but every deed was a little different. There was no
standardized legal form, and most of the deeds were written by hand.
Of course, over the next hundred years, people stopped using the train so much. In
Minnesota, the railroad company sold a lot of its land rights to the Department of Natural
Resources in 1991. Similar deals were passed all across the country, and many states, like
Minnesota, used this land to build public trails.
The path that passes through Sandberg’s property is one of these trails, the Paul Bunyan
Trail. It’s popular with bikers, dog-walkers, in-line skaters, and in the winter,
Terry McGawhee is Executive Director of the Paul Bunyan Trail
Association, and he’s constantly lobbying the state legislature to expand the trail or pave
parts of it that are still dirt.
“Not every community embraces the trail, but those that have, have seen significant
economic influence on their communities. And the majority of the people along the 100
miles of the trail are eager to see the trail development.”
The state had held off on further work on the trail because of a lawsuit filed by Sandberg’s
brother and several other landowners. Sandberg said the railroad company didn’t own the
trail on his property, so they couldn’t have sold it to the state.
“The abstract states clearly in layman’s terms it was an easement that the railroad had and
when they quit using it for railroad purposes it should go back to the landowner.”
That’s the reasoning Sandberg’s brother and other landowners used when they blockaded
parts of the trail back in 1998. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sued
them, and was initially successful. The landowners appealed, however, and the Appeals
Court overturned the decision. The state agency then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme
Court. On July 29th, the Court ruled in favor of the state trail.
Trail advocates across the country watched the case closely. Lawyers in trail land
disputes in every state could bring up this case as an example. For more than twenty
years, lawyers fighting for public trails have relied heavily on another case, also in
Minnesota. Dorian Grilley is the executive director of the Parks and Trails Council of
Minnesota. He says the Minnesota Supreme Court made the decision in 1983.
“In that case, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that it was legal for that easement to
be transferred to a public agency for use as a trail because in the early 1900’s or late
1800’s, ‘railway purposes’ really meant public transportation, and that a trail qualified as
In its recent decision, the court upheld the idea that a public trail serves the same kind of
purpose as a railway, moving people from place to place.
Now that the court has ruled in favor of the state, Mike Sandberg will be forced to
abandon plans to build a driveway along the old railroad bed. His brother is not sure
whether he’ll build his retirement home there as he’d planned, since bicyclists and hikers
will have access to the trail cutting across his property. But trail users can look forward to
seeing another section of the trail completed and paved.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Katherine Glover.