Southampton residents next to proposed rail trail seek ‘just compensation’ from feds

  • Pat Courtney and Kathi Rohr, both of Southampton, reach the southern end of the Manhan Rail Trail at Coleman Road in Southampton on Monday, April 5, 2021. The abandoned rail bed of the former New Haven and Northampton Canal Line can be seen in foreground on the south side of Coleman Road. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2023 9:05:33 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — A few Southampton landowners are asserting that they are due “just compensation” from the federal government, claiming that their land has been seized for the Greenway rail trail project currently in the design phase.

As part of a lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims on Dec. 19 by Kansas City, Missouri-based law firm Stewart, Wald and McCulley, the landowners allege that the conversion of an abandoned rail line to a recreational trail prevents them from taking back possession of the land, according to attorney Michael Smith.

“We feel strongly about our ability to do this case,” Smith said.

In December, the town of Southampton purchased a right-of-way from the Pioneer Valley Railroad Co. for $340,000 for use as a rail trail. The town intends to use a 3.5-mile defunct rail bed from the railroad company to develop the Greenway bicycle/pedestrian path through a process known as railbanking, a condition that allows a railroad agency to retain the right to reuse a portion of the line in the event it needs it for future use.

“This does not mean the town has ‘bought’ or ‘owns’ the corridor, but instead is granted access for an extended period of time for the sake of creating the pathway on the abandoned surface,” said Aaron Tauscher, chairperson of the town’s Greenway Committee.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board gave its approval to convert the abandoned rail line to a recreational trail on Dec. 16.

That designation triggered the lawsuit, Smith said. He says the land in question was taken from landowners by eminent domain in the 1800s for a railroad, but now that the land use is changing to make a trail, the government is preventing current landowners from reclaiming the land. 

“We believe these landowners are entitled to compensation that represents the value of that land,” he said. “You cannot take private land from the landowners without paying just public compensation.”

As of the court filing, the lawsuit includes three plaintiffs: Kristen Biancuzzo, Jeffrey Haskins and Grindstone Realty. Smith said he expects to add five more landowners to the case in the next month.

Stewart, Wald and McCulley, which specializes in eminent domain rail-to-trail litigation, claims to have recovered $380 million from its other cases.

In 2009, the firm brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of Worcester County landowners along a 10.8-mile trail. In Capreal v. U.S., attorneys recovered $3.3 million on behalf of landowners.

In that case, Providence and Worcester Railroad Co. formerly owned an easement for railroad purposes, known as the Southbridge Running Track, from Webster to Southbridge.

Much like this 2009 case, the current lawsuit is seeking compensation from the federal government, according to Smith. The railroad and the entities sponsoring the trail are not involved.

Since the lawsuit is against the federal government, Southampton Town Administrator Ed Gibson said he did not have any comment.

Tauscher said he has not been contacted by the law firm and had no additional information about the lawsuit.

He did note that the committee is currently working on preparing for the engineering and design phase of the project while continuing to apply for grant funds. For now, the project is focused on the rail corridor between Coleman Road and College Highway, both in Southampton.

Though the committee is hoping to work more closely with the city of Westfield on closing the gap in the future, anything beyond College Highway/Route 10 is not currently in the project’s scope, said Tauscher.

“We’re excited to move on to the engineering portion of the project as it will allow for more realistic information to be available to residents as it comes together,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “We’re looking forward to creating new ways for the committee to share updates with residents and expect to host public information/Q&A sessions in the next year or two with the engineering firm.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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