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Gratiot County Property Owners Win Rights to Railroad Right of Way

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THE DISPUTE

Who had ownership and rights to use a 100-foot right of way adjacent to a railroad in Gratiot County? 

Plaintiffs

The individual who purchased the railroad then transferred it to a living trust. He and his wife are the trustees.

vs.

Defendants

About 20 Gratiot County residents with property adjacent to the railroad

THE CASE

In 1985, an individual from Gratiot County, MI, purchased 13 miles of a railroad. He believed the purchase included 50 feet of land on either side of the railroad – formerly the railroad’s right of way and property. In later years, he and his guests used the right of way and railroad to tap trees for maple syrup, run hobby cars on the tracks, hunt, and collect firewood.

Residents with property adjacent to the railroad also used the property up to the tracks – excavating, clearing trees, and farming. Their actions opposed the plaintiffs’ presumed property rights. A dispute arose about who had the right to use the property. The plaintiffs filed claims against these adjacent property owners for quiet title, adverse possession, acquiescence, trespass, and restitution.

Plaintiffs claimed the following:

  • They were fee simple owners of the railroad and right of way.
  • The adjacent landowners did not have the right, title, or interest to use the right of way.

In addition, the plaintiffs asked the court to confirm their interest in the land and to award monetary damages based on trespass.

The adjacent property owners engaged Smith Haughey attorneys – Krista Jackson, Michael Bovill, and Lauren Ayoub – to fight the claim. They argued they owned the right of way within their individual parcels of land. 

THE DISCOVERY PROCESS

Jackson, Bovill, and Ayoub began researching the origination of the railroad and right of way, Grand Trunk Western Railroad Company’s ownership of the railroad, and their request to abandon it. 

They educated themselves on railroad law and tracked down significant documentation on the property’s use and ownership going back to the original railroad grant in 1888.

SMITH HAUGHEY COUNSEL

Krista Jackson
Krista Jackson
Michael Bovill
Michael Bovill
Lauren Ayoub
Lauren Ayoub
Gratiot County railroad
The Gratiot County railroad

As a result, they discovered the original property owners granted easements to Toledo, Saginaw & Muskegon Railway Company to construct and maintain the railroad.

The railway company merged with Grand Trunk in 1928, and by the mid-1980s, Grand Trunk had stopped using and maintaining the railroad. It applied for abandonment, and the Interstate Commerce Commission agreed.

At that time, the Interstate Commerce Commission also determined that Grand Trunk only held an easement interest in the right of way; it didn’t have fee title. In 1985, Grand Trunk sold its remaining interest in the railroad to the plaintiff, who later transferred the title into a marital trust.

THE WIN

Based on their extensive research and discovery, Jackson, Bovill, and Ayoub filed a motion for summary disposition. They argued that the defendants owned the railroad’s right of way because the original easement was granted for the sole purpose of maintaining and building the railroad.  

Therefore, when the railroad was abandoned by Grand Trunk, railroad maintenance stopped, and the easement was extinguished. With no need for an easement, the 100-foot right of way returned to the adjacent property owners without the burden of an easement.  

The court accepted this position, stating that the railroad was abandoned. It granted full ownership of the railroad and right of way to the defendants – a complete victory for them.  

"We outworked the opposing counsel on every aspect of this case – from understanding the railroad’s history to tracking down the property’s use and ownership to following detailed court processes. I’m proud of our team’s efforts and the result we achieved for our clients. They wanted to use their land. Now they can."

Krista Jackson