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Old Railroad Bed, LLC v. Marcus

Supreme Court of Vermont

March 7, 2014

Old Railroad Bed, LLC
v.
Ronald A. Marcus, Kristi Marcus, et al

Editorial Note:

This Opinion is subject to motion for reargument or formal revision before publication. See V.R.A.P. 40

On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Civil Division. Katherine A. Hayes, J.

Robert E. Woolmington of Witten, Woolmington & Campbell, P.C., Manchester Center, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Allan R. Keyes and James B. Anderson of Ryan, Smith & Carbine, Ltd., Rutland, for Defendants-Appellants.

Present: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Burgess and Robinson, JJ.

OPINION

Page 401

Reiber, C.J.

[¶1] This is a dispute over title to an old railroad bed adjacent to defendants' property that plaintiff purchased with the goal of creating a public recreational trail. Defendants challenge the trial court's determination that plaintiff acquired a valid fee simple interest in the property, asserting that title either reverted to them when the railroad abandoned the line or vested in them through adverse possession. We affirm.

[¶2] The background to this dispute may be succinctly summarized; additional material facts will be set forth in the discussion which follows. The property in question, located in the Town of Manchester, consists of a strip of land approximately fifty to eighty-two feet wide, comprised of several adjoining parcels conveyed by three separate warranty deeds in December 1902 from defendants' predecessors-in-interest to the Manchester, Dorset &

Page 402

Granville Railroad Company (MD& G). MD& G was incorporated in June 1902, tracks were laid in 1903, and the railroad began operating in 1904, chiefly for the transportation of marble. In 1913, the Vermont Marble Company acquired MD& G's stock. Railroad operations were suspended in 1918, revived briefly in 1924, and ceased altogether in 1934, when the tracks were removed from the railroad bed. Two years later, MD& G conveyed all of its remaining assets to Vermont Marble, and filed articles of dissolution. In 1992, Vermont Marble merged with OMYA, Inc., which became title holder of the railroad bed property. In 2009, plaintiff Old Railroad Bed, LLC purchased the property from OMYA for $39,614, for the purpose of creating a public recreational trail.

[¶3] As noted, defendants own property adjacent to the old railroad bed and are the successors-in-interest of the original grantors of the property to MD& G. Defendants Ronald and Kristi Marcus own the northernmost property, defendants Bradford West, Vernon West, and Cathy Cushing own property to the south of the Marcuses, and defendants Donald and Eleanor Dykes own property to the south of the West/Cushing parcel. When the Marcuses objected to plaintiff's right to pursue its trail plan, plaintiff filed an ejectment action against them, seeking a writ of possession and injunction to prevent them from interfering with plaintiff's rights. The other adjacent property owners were subsequently granted leave to intervene in the lawsuit as co-defendants (hereafter collectively " defendants" ).

[¶4] Defendants ultimately filed two motions for summary judgment, one based on a claim that MD& G had acquired only an easement in the property, which reverted to the original grantors and their heirs and assigns, i.e., defendants, when the line was abandoned, and the other on a theory of adverse possession. In November 2011, the trial court issued a written decision, resolving the first claim in favor of plaintiff. The court concluded that each of the three original deeds on its face " convey[ed] a fee simple interest to MD& G" ; that a location survey by the railroad company referenced in each of the deeds and later recorded did not effectively convert the conveyances into takings by condemnation; [1] and that the statutory scheme in effect at the time did not preclude the railroad from obtaining a fee simple interest through a mutually agreed transfer of title for consideration.

[¶5] In an order issued the following month, the trial court denied defendants' motion for summary judgment on the adverse possession claim, finding that genuine issues of material fact remained in dispute. In July 2012, following a two-day court trial, the court issued a thirty-two page decision rejecting the claim on its merits, and thereafter entered a final judgment in favor of plaintiff. This appeal followed.

I.

[¶6] Defendants do not challenge the trial court's finding that each of the deeds conveyed a fee simple interest to MD& G. They contend, nevertheless, that MD& G acquired at most an easement in the properties which reverted to the grantors and their heirs and assigns when the line was abandoned. As below, defendants advance two arguments to support the claim. First, they cite settled law that a

Page 403

railroad acquiring property by condemnation receives only an easement interest that reverts to the grantor upon abandonment. Dessureau v. Maurice Mem'ls, Inc., 132 Vt. 350, 351, 318 A.2d 652, 653 (1974). While acknowledging that MD& G did not acquire the properties through formal eminent domain proceedings, defendants maintain that because the land records reveal the location survey was recorded before the deed, they were obtained under " threat of ...


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