Property Owners Settle Over Rail-to-Trail Swap


     (CN) - A federal judge approved a $140 million settlement to 500 property owners in King County, Wash., whose BNSF rail easements were converted to recreation trails.
     The dispute dates back to BNSF's consent in 2008 for King County for a "Rails-to-Trails" program, which would convert unused railroad segments to hiking and biking trails rather than abandon the rights of way. The 1976 Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act authorized a rails-to-trails fund for repurposing abandoned railway corridors.
     Landowners affected by the swap claimed they would otherwise have had free title to their properties and were not fairly compensated for the taking.
     Daniel and Kathy Haggart led a 2009 class action in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, alleging Fifth Amendment violations.
     After Judge Charles Lettow assigned the government some liability at summary judgment, the parties reached a settlement that the U.S. Attorney General's Office approved.
     Lettow granted the deal final approval last week. He noted that the government and landowners both appraised affected properties to reach the compensation figure. The government had emphasized at a settlement it was choosing to settle the case, but "not conceding liability."
     In addition to a $137.9 million settlement fund, class counsel will recover $2. 5 million in attorneys' fees and litigation costs. Class counsel will also retain $33.1 million of the common fund as a contingent fee, according to the order.
     The property owners were represented by Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice of St. Louis, Mo.