BNSF formerly operated a railroad through a 25-mile corridor that runs generally from Renton to Woodinville with a spur through Redmond. In 2008, King County agreed to acquire the corridor for recreational trail use, as well as public transportation and utilities. The corridor was then “railbanked” under the federal Rails-to-Trails Act, which allows for a recreational trail use without abandoning the railroad right-of-way. Puget Sound Energy then paid over $13.7 million to acquire utility rights through the corridor.
In 2009, a group of landowners with properties adjacent to the corridor sued the federal government in the United States Court of Federal Claims. The landowners alleged that the federal government took their property rights without just compensation, because the Rails-to-Trails Act prevented BNSF’s interests from reverting to them when BNSF stopped using the corridor as a railroad. Those landowners settled with the federal government for $141 million.
The landowners then turned their sights on how the corridor would be used, and sued King County, the Port of Seattle, PSE and Sound Transit. The landowners also filed a second federal lawsuit as a class action, alleging that the same defendants caused them additional money damages by claiming property rights through the corridor to which they were not legally entitled. PSE retained Riddell Williams to defend their utility rights in these two federal lawsuits.
In Ioppolo v. Port of Seattle et al., we promptly moved to dismiss the class action lawsuit, arguing that the plaintiffs had no legal claim against PSE for money damages. The Court granted PSE’s motion. The other defendants then filed similar motions, and the court dismissed the lawsuit.
In Kaseburg v. Port of Seattle et al., the landowners directly challenged PSE’s utility rights. The lawsuit presented important legal issues at the intersection of the federal Rails-to-Trails Act and Washington law. The parties filed seven different motions for summary judgment on these legal issues, and the Court upheld PSE’s utility rights. More specifically, the Court agreed with our legal argument that the Trails Act preserved the railroad easement, including permitted incidental uses under Washington law. The Court also agreed that PSE’s utility rights were not inconsistent with restoration of railroad and were therefore valid.
In our growing region, the property rights through this corridor have been described as critical to the area’s recreation, transportation and utility infrastructure. It is gratifying to have a role in protecting this corridor for the public’s benefit.