August 23, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Incidental Use Doctrine Permits Railroad to Lease Right-of-Way if Consistent with Railroad Purpose

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad v. Wolf on Thursday, August 1, 2013.

Railroad Right-of-Way—Non-Exclusive Easement—Summary Judgment—Incidental Use Doctrine.

Defendants Timothy Wolf and Katherine Turner (collectively, Wolf) appealed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of plaintiff Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (DSNGRR). The Court of Appeals affirmed.

In 1881, DSNGRR’s predecessor in interest acquired a right-of-way from plaintiff’s predecessor in interest. In 2009, DSNGRR agreed to grant the City of Durango a nonexclusive easement to extend a public recreation trail over its right-of-way and adjacent to the railroad tracks (which are still in use), part of which would run through Wolf’s property. In return, Durango paid DSNGRR $1 million specifically for continued operations and maintenance. The trail also will promote safe use of the right-of-way by pedestrians and bicyclists who walk and ride directly on the railroad tracks.

Wolf opposed the agreement, arguing that the 1881 right-of-way permitted use only for “railroad purposes” and that a recreation trail is not such a purpose. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court held that the original deed conveyed an easement that gave DSNGRR exclusive use and control of its right-of-way as long as it continues to operate a railroad. It also found that the use by the public was a railroad purpose, because it eliminated safety and liability problems and increased efficiency on any rail repairs.

On appeal, the Court agreed with the trial court that the right-of-way was more expansive than a typical easement and that DSNGRR had the right to exclusive use and control of it. The Court noted Colorado and federal precedent that railroad rights-of-way are more expansive than ordinary easements and include the right to exclusive use and control. This expansive easement includes the right to lease portions of the right-of-way.

The Court did not address whether a public recreation trail is a “railroad purpose,” because it found the trail satisfied the incidental use doctrine. This doctrine, applied here for the first time in Colorado, states that a railroad may lease a portion of its right-of-way where the use is incidental to or not inconsistent with the railroad’s continued use of its right-of-way for railroad purposes. The public recreation trail meets both of these criteria.

Wolf then argued that the trial court erred by not requiring the joinder of five indispensable parties whose property also was subject to DSNGRR’s right-of-way and were affected by the public recreation trail. The Court disagreed, finding that this dispute centered on the interpretation of the deed from Wolf’s predecessor, which only concerned the right-of-way on Wolf’s property. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

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