“South Hill Recreation Way Extension May Be Stopped by Landowners” -Ithaca Times, July 12, 2016
Residents near the proposed extension of the South Hill Recreation Way took the early initiative to voice their concerns about the idea last month at the Dryden Town Board meeting June 16, creating a question of ownership.
Six landowners at German Cross Road and Burns road area expressed their displeasure to the board during citizen’s privilege about the South Hill Recreation Way continuing along the abandoned railroad that cuts through their property.
One of the more consistent concerns was who actually owns the property and the rights: landowners or NYSEG, which was given the right-of-way to the land.
“The project is just getting underway so this is our first obstacle,” Dryden planning director Ray Burger said last week.
Burger said once the issue was raised at the meeting, attorneys began doing a full title search to see if NYSEG owned the land. He said the company does pay taxes and it has been understood that it is “reportedly” the owners.
The landowners at the meeting said they believed NYSEG to hold the right-of-way to the land for its own purposes, but that it was unable to give those rights away to people. Now they’re thinking it might not be true.
Under the initial understanding, NYSEG was giving its right to the towns the trail would go through for the purpose of extending the path two miles to Banks Road.
That NYSEG didn’t have the title, is “reluctant to enter discussions” about the trail and is asking for written approval from all adjoining landowners is a red flag, the residents said.
“There seems to be some lingering misunderstanding about ownership issues, or perhaps they are well understood by trail advocates but they are trying again with a new, uninformed board,” Caroline resident Scott Van Gaasbeck wrote in a letter he read to the board.
A letter went out to residents around three months ago that breached the idea of extending the trail, Burger said. The towns of Ithaca, Dryden, Caroline and Danby are just now starting to talk about it with a public hearing recommended for the future.
“We want to investigate these issues residents have,” Burger said.
In the 1950s, the railroad that had built the line ceased using the track. It had originally built it after Congress passed the Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies “right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States.”
As railroads began to abandon routes and their railway lines, court battles arose over to whom the land should belong: railway or land owner. The residents in attendance at the board meeting shared a list of relevant cases with the board that would give them, the landowners, legal ownership.
In the 1942 case Great Northern Railway Co. vs. United States, the court decided railroads had the right-of-way, but not the right to oils and minerals under the railroad line. They only had the right to build a transportation line that would help economy.
In the Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust vs. U.S. case of 2014, the court decided that when railroads abandon their track they also relinquish their rights to use it. Ownership would then revert back to landowners since railroads only needed a pathway.
These issues all arose in 2008, when the Caroline residents successfully fought against the extension. Included was David Wrisley III, whose family has owned the same plot of land for more than 100 years, and Gaasbeck.
“The prospect of legally defending ourselves and our farm for a second time feels like harassment and intimidation,” said Van Gaasbeck, who attended with his wife Crystal. “It is a truly undue burden for my family. However, the legal precedents are clear and resounding, and we will defend ourselves vigorously against any attempts by the Town to take our land, and we will seek damages and legal fees from the Town if we are forced to file suit.”
Burger cautioned that not all residents are against the idea of extending the trail. He said many have voiced their support.
In a 2009 Town of Ithaca trail survey on the effects of the South Hill, East Ithaca and Northeast Ithaca Recreation Ways on landowners’ lives and property, 59 percent of people on the South Hill path were “very satisfied” with the trail. More than half of respondents said it “much improved the quality of the neighborhood” and 42 percent said living near the trail is “better than expected.”
The study, which sent surveys to all residents living on the pathway, also found that the biggest perceived problem on the South Hill Recreation Way by landowners was unleashed and roaming pets. Trespassing, noise and loitering were minor problems. Vandalism and burglary were found to be small issues, with 80 percent saying vandalism “wasn’t a problem at all” (7 percent ranked is as a little problem) and 90 percent said burglary wasn’t a problem at all (2 percent ranked it as a little problem).