Login | October 17, 2018

Landowners can challenge ownership of abandoned railroad line property

DAN TREVAS
Supreme Court
Public Information Office

Published: February 14, 2018

Two landowners will be able to pursue claims that through “adverse possession” they own portions of an abandoned rail corridor sold to Rails-to-Trails of Wayne County, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled.

A Court majority, in a ruling released today, found that a Wayne County Common Pleas Court must conduct further proceedings to determine whether portions of the old Akron Branch railroad line—sold to Rails-to-Trails in 2009 for a multi-purpose path—belong to families who acquired land adjacent to the tracks. The Court ruled the trial court wrongly agreed with Rails-to-Trails that the landowners had not proven they exclusively possessed portions of the corridor where Consolidated Railroad Corporation (Conrail) removed the tracks from some time in the late 1980s.

Separately, the Court rejected the claim of a third set of landowners, Brian and Laura Bilinovich, finding that testimony indicated the railroad made it clear to the couple that it still considered itself the owner of the land. The Court also rejected a claim by the Bilinoviches and Joseph and Michele Koontz, that was based on their interpretation of the original 1882 deed conveying land to the railroad. The two couples argued that the deed provided that the land belonged to the railroad company as long as it was used for a railroad, and once it stopped being used for that purpose, the property automatically transferred back to the original landowners.

In rejecting the deed challenge, Justice R. Patrick DeWine indicated the lower courts relied on a 1929 Ohio Supreme Court decision about how to determine ownership of land that appears to be restricted for a particular purpose. Justice DeWine wrote the Court should no longer follow the precedent established by In re Petition of Copps Chapel Methodist Church but should rather use the reasoning of more modern property dispute decisions.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French joined Justice DeWine’s opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in judgment only, writing that he would not effectively overrule Copps Chapel and that the Court “should avoid disturbing any reliance Ohioans have placed on that decision.” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In separate written opinions, Justice Terrence O’Donnell and former Justice William M. O’Neill concurred in part, and dissented in part. Both would let stand the trail court’s granting of summary judgment to Rails-to-Trails giving the organization possession of the land. Justice O’Neill joined the portion of the majority opinion regarding the deed issue. He resigned from the Court on Jan. 26.

Landowners Contest Trail Sale

In 2009, Rails-to-Trails purchased an eight-mile stretch of the old Akron Branch that had been owned by Conrail. Don and Carolyn Koprivec, the Koontzes, and the Bilinoviches filed a lawsuit in 2011 to establish their ownership in portions of the corridor. All three asserted they owned the land through adverse possession, in which they were required to prove they had “open, notorious, and exclusive possession of the land for 21 years.”

The Koontzes and Bilinoviches also argued that a clause in an 1882 deed indicated if the land no longer was used for a railroad, ownership of the land reverted to the original landowners. They claim that language applies to their land, which was acquired over the years from the original owners.

Conrail began removing the tracks and wooden ties in 1987, and the parties disputed whether the work was completed before 1989. Rails-to-Trails claimed the landowners could not have exclusive possession because Conrail signed two license agreements with telecommunications companies to install underground lines along the track paths and that two companies had crews conduct maintenance on the land over the years. Rails-to-Trails also argued railroad employees walked the corridor and did work to maintain it.

The trial court rejected the deed claim. Relying on the Copps Chapel ruling, the court ruled that while the deed contained language indicating the land was conveyed for the purpose of constructing a rail line, it did not have any language that explicitly stated that the property would revert back to the landowners. The trial court also ruled all three landowners’ possession was interrupted by the license agreements with the telecommunications companies, the activities of those companies, and an inspection of the corridor by a railroad employee.

The landowners appealed to the Ninth District, which affirmed the trial court on the deed issue, but reversed the trial court on the adverse possession claims. The Ninth District ruled there were “genuine issues of material fact” about the activities on the land that required a trier-of-fact to sort out. Rails-to-Trails appealed the adverse possession ruling against it to the Supreme Court and the Bilinoviches and Koontzes appealed the deed challenge. The Supreme Court agreed to consider both issues.

Court Examines Intention of Deed Language

The majority opinion explained that deeds with restrictive language—such as terms that the property is granted to the new owner “as long as” it is used for a particular purpose—are understood to create a condition where once the land no longer is being used for that purpose, ownership of the land reverts to the original owner. The opinion noted that the trial court and the Ninth District relied on Copps Chapel, which seemed to rule that the only way the property reverts to the original owner is if the language explicitly says so when a stated event takes place.

The opinion stated that instead of looking for explicit terms establishing the reversion of the land to the original owners, courts need to examine the “four corners” of the contract document and determine the intentions of the property owners. The Court concluded the language of the deed did not condition the right to hold the land on its use as a railroad, rejecting the arguments of the landowners.

Land’s Possession Unclear from Testimony, Court Finds

The Court wrote that to obtain property by adverse possession, the person claiming ownership has to be in “exclusive possession.” However, exclusivity does not mean that all others need to be excluded from the land, but rather the person claiming the land needs to use the land like an owner would, granting permission to others who come upon it.

The Court held that the license agreements with the telecommunications companies alone would not be enough to interfere with the landowners’ claim of possession. The Court found that work done to maintain the lines, if it occurred with the permission of the three landowners, does not indicate the railroad company still owned the corridor.

The Court also found conflicting statements between the landowners and representatives of the railroad and telecommunication companies about any steps the railroad took after 1987 to ensure neighboring property owners were aware the company was still in control of the corridor. The Court concluded that a trier-of-fact should determine whether the railroad interfered with the exclusive use of the property by the Koprivecs and the Koontzes.

The Court rejected the Bilinoviches claim, noting that Brian Bilinovich met with a railroad representative on the property in 2002 and had about six conversations with the company about purchasing or leasing the corridor land. Those interactions led the Court to conclude Conrail still considered itself the owners of the land adjacent to the Bilinoviches’ property and that the Bilinoviches were not disputing it.

“It is hard to imagine a more direct assertion of ownership over a piece of property than a title holder standing on his property, inspecting it with another, and offering to lease it to that person,” the opinion stated.

Dissent Believed Railroad Maintained Control

In his dissenting opinion, former Justice O’Neill, stated he agreed with the majority on the deed issue, but concluded that Rails-to-Trails proved that none of the three landowners had acquired the property by adverse possession, and the trial court correctly ruled in Rails-to-Trails favor.

He wrote that the Bilinoviches and Koontzes obtained their property from Judith Wiley and her family. He noted that when Rails-to-Trials obtained the Conrail property, organization officers rode the entire length of the corridor on ATVs and observed gates across the land, but one were shut or locked, and at no time did any landowner inform them that they were trespassing or told to leave.

Wiley testified that in the 1990s a railroad employee walking along the rail corridor told her not to trespass on the land. Some of the landowners’ claims are based on the combined possession of the Wiley family and their own to reach the 21-year requirement. Justice O’Neill concluded that Wiley’s possession was clearly interrupted, meaning the 21-year threshold was not met at the time Rails-to-Trails bought the land. In regard to the Koprivec’s claim, Justice O’Neill wrote that Don Koprivec stated he “lacked any knowledge” of the maintenance crews or Rails-to-Trials coming on the property. Justice O’Neill concluded that does not meet the requirement to prove Koprivec treated the corridor as his exclusive property.

2016-0704. Koprivec v. Rails-to-Trails of Wayne County, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-465.


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