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Win in Georgia trail case comes three years after trial

A group of St. Louis lawyers won a $1.5 million judgment for Georgia landowners living along an abandoned railroad after the federal government turned it into a public trail. 

The U.S. Federal Court of Claims sided with the landowners in an opinion released three years after trial, which has added about $500,000 in interest to the damages.

In 2013, the federal government converted a railroad that had been abandoned for 100 years into a public trail in Covington, Georgia. More than 60 landowners along that trail sued the United States for refusing to compensate them. 

The landowners were represented by St. Louis-based attorneys who were with Arent Fox at the time of trial.

Meghan S. Largent, who is now at Lewis Rice, handled 47 of the cases. She said that while one homeowner was disturbed that the public trail is 10 feet away from her bedroom window, other clients liked the trail. But that wasn’t the point of the lawsuit.

“We didn’t want to harm the trail in any way,” Largent said. “We just want to compensate people.”

The law was clear that the government had to compensate the landowners. The National Trails System Act says that if a railroad-turned-trail encourages people to trespass on private property, its owners must be compensated.

The question was how much money the court needed to award. For property value appraisals, they had to compare the current value of each property with the public trail to what the value would be without the trail or a railroad.

One of the plaintiffs’ experts, Doug Hodge, had previously served as an expert in Trails Act cases and had supported the federal government’s argument in four of those cases. The court found the plaintiffs’ experts’ valuation to be more credible than the defense experts’ appraisal.

Property in this case and other cases like it are devalued for losing access to resources like highways and utilities, and for invasion of privacy.

Thor Hearne was the senior attorney at Arent Fox when the case was first filed, and has been practicing in this area of law since the Trails Act was amended in 1983. As a city attorney for Grantwood Village in St. Louis County, Hearne first argued for and won owners’ compensation when the federal government created Grant’s Trail along properties in the village.

Hearne said that the federal government’s treatment of landowners has not changed since then, though the Fifth Amendment requires the federal government to pay homeowners in these cases. 

“The responsible thing would be to compensate the landowners in the first place,” Hearne said.

By claiming it owed nothing to landowners, Hearne said the federal government also had to pay $4.5 million in legal fees and $500,000 in expert fees just on the plaintiffs’ side.

Lucinda Bach and Amerveer Brar represented the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division at the time. Neither were available for comment. 

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$1.5 million judgment (out of state)

National Trails System Act

Venue: U.S. Court of Federal Claims

Case Number/Date: 14-379L, 15-194L/Aug. 31, 2021

Judge: Mary Ellen Coster Williams

Plaintiffs’ Experts: Doug Hodge (appraisal); David Matthews (appraisal); Paul Wazzan (economics)

Defendant’s Experts: Andrew Sheppard (appraisal); John Underwood (appraisal); Jonathan Neuberger (economics)

Caption: Gloria J. Jackson et al.and Mark Frederick Guenther et al. v. United States

Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Meghan S. Largent and Lindsey S.C. Brinton, Lewis Rice, St. Louis; Mark F. (Thor) Hearne and Steven F. Davis, True North Law, Clayton; James H. Hulme and Laurel LaMontagne, Arent Fox, Washington, D.C.

Defendant’s Attorneys: Lucinda Bach and Amarveer Brar, U.S. Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division, Washington, D.C.; Craig Keats and Evelyn Kitay, Surface Transportation Board Office of the General Counsel, Washington, D.C.