ST. LOUIS -- A federal court has awarded $410,000 to 13 landowners along Missouri's Katy Trail in a property rights dispute, a decision that could open the way for awards to 285 other owners of property along the 225-mile hiking and biking trail.
The U.S. Court of Claims in St. Louis ruled in the case Nov. 21. The ruling was announced earlier this week by the Missouri Farm Bureau, which sided with landowners.
The Katy Trail was developed along the abandoned Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad corridor. The trail runs from St. Charles in eastern Missouri along the Missouri River to Clinton in the western part of the state.
The rail line runs through private property in many locations. At issue was whether the state had the right to take the abandoned line and turn it into the Katy Trail without compensating landowners.
"The issue was never about the hiking and biking trail, and it was never about compensation," Farm Bureau president Charles Kruse said. "It was about property rights."
While the state operates and maintains the Katy Trail, the U.S. government will be responsible for paying the awards to landowners, said Gary Heldt of Montgomery City, a spokesman for the landowners. That's because the state moved forward with the Katy Trail project under guidelines of the national Rails to Trails Act, which allows abandoned railroad property to be turned over to state or local government for use as trails.
The Court of Claims decision did not call into question the validity of the Rails to Trails Act, but addressed only the issue of compensation for landowners, Heldt said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department said no one was available on Wednesday to say if the ruling would be appealed. A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the state agency responsible for the Katy Trail, said the DNR was not a party in the lawsuit and the decision would have no impact on operation of the trail.
"If Rails to Trails can take control for land by simply claiming someone else's easement on a piece of property, all easements are subject to taking," Kruse said.
Heldt said lawyers will seek damage awards by the end of next year for 285 other Katy Trail landowners who have filed claims against the state. He estimated those awards could total $10 million.
"The government violated our property rights and we landowners fought this issue on principle, on the fact that our land can't simply be taken without something in return to the landowner," Heldt said.