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Lucas v. Township of Bethel

February 11, 2003

WILLIAM A. LUCAS; AUGUST LUCAS; DAVID J. KUSHON; JANIE B. KUSHON, APPELLANTS
v.
TOWNSHIP OF BETHEL; JAMES RIEDERER; ROBERT E. PRUNTY; MARGARETTA REED; ALLEGHENY VALLEY LAND TRUST



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 98-cv-01928) District Judge: Honorable Donetta W. Ambrose

Before: Roth, Nygaard and Weis, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roth, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued April 30, 2002

OPINION OF THE COURT

This jurisdictional dispute requires us to decide whether the District Court or the Surface Transportation Board (STB) has authority to resolve a property claim involving a defunct railroad line. The line, known as the Allegheny Secondary Track, was used by the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) as a railroad right of way. In 1989, the STB's predecessor, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC),*fn1 granted Conrail unconditional authorization to abandon the Allegheny Secondary Track. See Section 308 of the Regional Rail Reorganization Act, 45 U.S.C. S 748(c). Conrail subsequently sold its interest in the right of way to the Allegheny Valley Land Trust (AVLT), which intended to convert the line to a trail use.

Notwithstanding Conrail's sale to the AVLT, plaintiffs, who own real property underlying the Allegheny Secondary Track, claim that Conrail's interest reverted to them when Conrail abandoned its right of way. Thus, when the AVLT permitted the Township of Bethel to enter plaintiffs' property and remove materials from the Allegheny Secondary Track, plaintiffs brought this lawsuit, claiming that the Township trespassed on their property and violated their constitutional rights.

The District Court dismissed plaintiffs' claims on the ground that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to determine whether Conrail had abandoned its line. Despite the ICC's unconditional authorization of abandonment, the District Court held that the STB retained exclusive jurisdiction over the issue of abandonment. The court reasoned that the STB would retain exclusive jurisdiction unless and until it determined that Conrail fully abandoned the rail line and that the abandonment occurred before the AVLT converted the line to a trail use. Otherwise, the current trail use of the Allegheny Secondary Track would provide continued basis for STB jurisdiction under the National Trails Act, 16 U.S.C. S 1247(d), and would prevent the right of way from reverting to plaintiffs.

We will reverse the District Court's dismissal of this action. We hold that the ICC's unconditional authorization of abandonment was sufficient to end its jurisdiction over the Allegheny Secondary Track. First, the abandonment was authorized under S 308, a provision that substantially limits the STB's authority to place the usual conditions on abandonment of a railroad right of way. Second, both the Supreme Court and this Court have noted that the ICC's jurisdiction ends once it grants unconditional authorization to abandon a line, as is the case here. Finally, the ICC was never asked to intervene and prevent abandonment by certifying an interim trail use under the National Trail Act. Thus, the Act's provisions are inapplicable to this case. We address these points in more detail below.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiffs own two separate parcels of real estate. In 1852, a previous owner of the land subjected both parcels to a railroad right of way, known as the Allegheny Secondary Track. Since that time, a number of different railroad companies have operated trains over the Allegheny Secondary Track. Conrail acquired this right of way on April 1, 1976, and had common carrier obligations on the track from April 1, 1976, until June 8, 1989.

On June 8, 1989, the ICC authorized Conrail to discontinue service over the Allegheny Secondary Track pursuant to S 308(c) of the Regional Rail Reorganization Act. Plaintiffs claim that Conrail's interest in the right of way reverted to them when Conrail abandoned the line pursuant to the ICC's order. Thus, plaintiffs deny that the AVLT was authorized to allow the Town of Bethel to enter plaintiffs' property in order to remove ballast *fn2 from the right of way.

A. Abandonment under S 308(c) of the Regional Rail Reorganization Act.

In the Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981 (NERSA), Congress amended the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 by adding S 308.*fn3 Under S 308(c), Conrail may abandon an unprofitable right of way by filing a notice of insufficient revenues, waiting at least 90 days, and then filing an application for abandonment. See 45 U.S.C. S 748(c). The express language of S 308(c) requires the ICC to grant Conrail's application 90 days after it is filed and allows the agency to delay abandonment only if an offer of financial assistance is made within 90 days of Conrail's application. 45 U.S.C. S 748(c)-(d); 49 U.S.C.S 10904(d)(2). The ICC has also noted that it may delay S 308 abandonments under the interim use provisions set forth in the National Trails Act, 16 U.S.C. S 1247(d). See Rail Abandonments--Use of Right of Ways as Trails, 2 I.C.C.2d 591, 613 (April 16, 1986).

Conrail initiated this abandonment procedure on October 31, 1985. It notified the ICC that it intended to abandon the Allegheny Secondary Track by filing a notice of Insufficient Revenues under S 308(c). Conrail filed an application for approval of abandonment well over 90 days later, on March 8, 1989. On June 8, 1989, and as required by S 308, the ICC authorized Conrail to abandon its line. The ICC's certificate of abandonment states that no offer of financial assistance was made within 90 days of Conrail's application, and, thus, there was no reason to delay approval under S 308(c). The June 8, 1989, certificate does not suggest that the ICC intended to place any National Trails Act conditions on Conrail's abandonment of its line. The ICC neither mentioned the ...


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