Preseault v. United States
100 F.3d 1525

  • A railroad had an easement to run some tracks over a parcel of land in Vermont. The railroad shut down in 1970 and in 1975 removed the tracks, but the railroad never applied for an abandonment order.
    • The railroad had received a legal easement when they originally built the tracks.
    • In order for the railroad to officially abandon the property, they had to file with the Interstate Commerce Commission, (aka an abandonment order), which they did not do.
    • Technically, the bill of sale said that the railroad owned the land in fee simple.
      • Fee simple means that the railroad completely owned the land, it wasn’t an easement.
  • Preseault bought the property, knowing that there was an easement allowing the railroad to run trains through the property.
    • Preseault probably figured that since the railroad had removed the tracks, they had abandoned their easement.
  • Years later, the railroad entered into an agreement with Vermont under the Rails-to-Trails Act, where the easement would be transferred to the State who would maintain the land as a public trail.
    • Vermont built a public trail with joggers and bikers running across Preseault’s land.
  • Preseault sued, claiming the Rails-to-Trails Act was unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court ruled that the Act was constitutional.
  • Preseault then sued the Federal Government, claiming that they took Preseault’s property when they authorized the conversion of the easement to a public trail.
    • Preseault argued that he was never paid for allowing bikers and joggers to use his property, so it amounted to an illegal taking.
  • The Appellate Court found that Presault’s property could not be used for a public trail.
    • The Appellate Court found that, even though the bill of sale said that the railroad had acquired the land in fee simple, they did not own it, they only had an easement.
    • The Court found that the railroad had only acquired easements for the use of the railroad, not for public trails.
      • Typically an easement is granted for a specific purpose, in this case, railroads and commerce. In order to remain viable, the easement would have to be used the same way. The public trail was for recreation purposes, not to ship freight, so it wasn’t the same as the original purpose..
    • The Court found that the easement ended at the time the railroad pulled up its tracks in 1975, and transfer to the State and subsequently the city was unauthorized under the 5th Amendment without just compensation.
      • Easements are lost when there is a clear intent to abandon. Even though the railroad never formally filed an abandonment order, for all practical purposes they abandoned the easement.
      • Typically, easements for railroads do not specify a termination date. The usual way in which an easement ends is by abandonment, which causes the easement to be extinguished as a matter of law.
        • Vermont law recognizes not only the ceasing of the use of the property, but an actual manifestation of intent to cease using the property for such a purpose.