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John Thompson

Elizabethton Bureau Chief
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Suit filed over rail conversion

September 7th, 2011 11:36 pm by John Thompson

ELIZABETHTON — Attorneys with the Kansas City and St. Louis law firm of Baker, Sterchi, Cowden and Rice have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the property owners abutting the old East Tennessee Railway line that is being converted to trail use.
The lawsuit is not an attempt to stop the plans to convert the old rail line to a recreational trail. Its intent is to obtain money from the federal government for the taking of land the adjoining property owners contend would have reverted to their ownership if the rail line had been merely abandoned instead of going into the federal Rails to Trails program.
The case, Debra Bridgeman and Silas and Marilyn Tester and a class of similarly situated persons vs. the United States, was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington on Aug. 30.
One of the plaintiff’s attorneys in the case, J. Robert Sears, said Wednesday the lawsuit does not have any local impact on the development of the trail or local government.
According to the lawsuit, there are more than 250 property owners, both commercial and residential, who could be a part of the class action suit. Unlike most class action suits, the property owners must opt in to be a part of the lawsuit.
Sears said the only property owners who are eligible to be involved in the suit are those who owned property abutting the rail line on Jan. 5, 2010, when the federal Surface Transportation Board issued a notice of interim trail use for the rail line.
Sears said the property owners do not have to be a part of his firm’s class action suit, they could file their own suit, but he said his firm is taking all the risk in the lawsuit. The federal government is represented by attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice.
In the lawsuit, Sears and his associates said without the Rails to Trails Act his clients would have had “the exclusive right to physical ownership, possession and use of their property free of any easement for recreational trail use or future railroad use.”
Sears will be in Johnson City on Friday and Saturday to provide information to interested property owners.
The claims are based upon the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the National Trails System Act Amendments of 1983, the Tucker Act and the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970.
According to the St. Louis Business Journal, St. Louis law firms have become the leaders in the rails to trails cases, beginning with the Lathrop and Gage law firm in 2000.

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