Can abandoned railroad track easements be transferred to a city for public use?

, ,

In the 1890s, a railroad built track on easements it acquired over property in Vermont. The property owners kept title to the underlying land. In 1975, the railroad abandoned the easements. Using federal legislation commonly known as the Rails-To-Trails Act, in 1985 the State of Vermont and a city petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to transfer the right of way from the railroad to the city for use as a nature trail for hiking and biking.
In a ruling that could affect many similarly situated landowners across the country, a federal appeals court held that the government could not convert the former railroad track into a public trail without first compensating the landowners for the loss of the interests represented by the easements. The easements simply were not the government’s to give away, however good an idea it was to reclaim unused property for public recreational purposes.