More than 40 Newton County landowners could share in $1.5 million after a federal judge ordered they be compensated for easement land they lost after the U.S. government allowed an abandoned railroad line to be converted to a multi-use recreation trail.
Senior Judge Mary Ellen Coster Williams of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims recently ordered the federal government to pay 47 Covington landowners after their property was approved for construction of the Cricket Frog Trail rather than it reverting back to them after the Central of Georgia railroad abandoned the line.
Williams’ Aug. 31 order requires the government to pay the owners of the 59 individual parcels the value of the easement property actually taken for the trail plus severance damages — the amount the owner’s remaining property decreased in value because of the taking.
The federal government will have 60 days from when the judgment becomes final to appeal, said attorney Meghan Largent of the St. Louis, Missouri, law firm that represented the homeowners.
The money will allow the landowners to make such improvements as privacy fences and landscaping to minimize the effect of having a public walking trail adjacent to their properties, Largent said.
“I think the judge got it right,” she said. “These owners can get paid and move on."
One landowner, Covington retiree Joseph Marino, said he would have preferred the easement land be returned to the owners.
"Anytime you're awarded money, it will help you out," he said.
Marino said he bought his home in 2001 and became accustomed to the sounds of the formerly working railroad after he moved in.
He said the trail's presence has not been a major burden on him. He built some stairs that allow him to access the trail, and he typically acknowledges trail users who wave to him, Marino said.
However, he also said it would be "nice to have no one walking" in the back of his property, and said it was a potential access point to back yards for criminals.
The landowners sued the federal government in 2014 after it authorized the conversion of the abandoned Central of Georgia railroad easement land to the Cricket Frog Trail, Largent said.
They alleged that Georgia law mandated the land go back to the individual properties to which they were attached before the easement was taken for the railroad's construction in the 1890s. It did not authorize conversion of the railroad bed — abandoned in 2010 — into a public recreational trail, she said.
A separate 2017 trial resulted in a judge finding the federal government liable for taking the landowners’ property, Largent said.
Williams then presided over a four-day trial and site visit in Atlanta in 2018 to determine the level of compensation.
Largent said attorneys for the federal government argued that it should not have to pay the landowners. They argued that construction of a public recreational trail either adjacent to or crossing landowners’ properties made their land more valuable, she said.
But the order cited the plaintiffs' example of Jennifer Thorpe's property on Floyd Street, The easement for the trail travels over her property and bisects it into two separate parcels.
"The imposition of the rail-trail corridor easement substantially reduced the value of Jennifer Thorpe's remaining property," the ruling stated.
The judge issued her order Aug. 31 — more than three years after the hearing in Atlanta, Largent said.
Largent said her clients' three-year wait for a ruling following a hearing was an unusually long time.
“That’s a very long turnaround,” Largent said. “It was difficult for our clients to wait so long. There were no assurances they were going to be compensated.”