Discussion at a House Budget Committee meeting last week signaled another year of delay for the proposed Rock Island Trail.
“We’re still hoping to hear conversations about it. But at this point we don’t see a clear path forward,” said Dan Haug, budget director from the Office of Administration for Budget and Planning. “We just didn’t feel comfortable putting it in this budget.”
The Rock Island Trail is proposed to be 144 miles long, stretching across Missouri from Kansas City to the Ozarks, using a former rail bed obtained by the state in 2021.
Last year, Gov. Mike Parson included $77 million in the budget for fiscal year 2023 to begin construction on over 70 miles of the trail, from Eugene to Beaufort. The funding was ultimately cut from the final budget by the Senate.
Concerns over property rights and ease of access to land led to lobbying on behalf of landowners and businesses like Diamond Pet Food. The Missouri Farm Bureau also opposed the trail’s development.
A decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals in February ruled that the landowners along the proposed Rock Island Trail should receive just compensation for the use of the former railroad easement land.
On Feb. 13, that court ruled that the initial terms for the railroad easements provided that “the property reverts back to the abutting landowner upon abandonment of rail operations” unless there was reasonable belief that the land would be in use for a railroad again.
According to the court decision, trail use is not considered a railroad purpose and there is no evidence that “establishing a nature trail for the purpose of keeping the corridor intact for future rail service if there is no evidence that such future use is realistic.”
The decision states that the railroad ceased operations decades ago and the rails and ties have been removed. Because of this, the court decided that there is no potential for future railroad use and the landowners should receive just compensation for the use of the land.
Meghan Largent, attorney at Lewis Rice, represents a group of landowners in the case pending in the United States Court of Federal Claims.
“Our whole case is aimed at getting landowners paid fair market value of the land that was taken from them,” said Largent. The intention was not to give the land back to the original owners as it was taken through eminent domain.
The decision from the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Court of Federal Claims for review. “The appellate court is the law of the land, whenever an appellate court makes a decision, it becomes the preeminent law,” she said.
According to Largent, the compensation for landowners does not come from Missouri or the funding for the trail, but from money appropriated by Congress from the U.S. Treasury. She said that not all landowners she represented were in opposition to the Rock Island Trail, but just wanted just compensation for the use of the land.
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