gavel and scales

A St. Louis law firm has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government claiming four Vigo County residents should be compensated under the Fifth Amendment for land the U.S. Surface Transportation Board ordered be converted into a public trail near the town of Riley.

The lawsuit could include up to 100 Vigo County residents along an approximately 6-mile section of rails which once serviced the Chinook Coal Mine just past Riley. The Indiana Railroad Company operated the Riley spur line under an easement. The rail line went between milepost 6.48 and milepost 12.4 near Riley.

Attorneys Lindsay Brinton and Meghan Largent, with the law firm Lewis Rice LLC, filed the lawsuit June 10 in the U.S. Courts of Federal Claims. That federal court hears monetary claims against the U.S. government. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Vigo County landowners Jeffrey M. Butts, Jo Dion Eck, James M. Havens and Terry L. Havens as trustees of The Havens Revocable Trust.

The lawsuit seeks $1 million in compensation, plus costs of litigation and attorneys fees.

The U.S. government as of Friday had not filed a response to the lawsuit. The U.S. Department of Justice has until Aug. 9 to respond to the complaint, according to the federal court docket. Judge Zachary Somers has been assigned.

The Riley spur line was was no longer economically viable, Peter Ray, vice president of engineering for the Indiana Rail Road, told the Tribune-Star in May, and the railroad petitioned to abandon the line. The Vigo County Board of Commissioners responded to the abandonment saying it would be interested in the property.

“It could be a trail in the future from Riley to Idle Creek [subdivision],” Commissioner Mike Morris said last month.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board on June 9 issued an order, called a notice of interim trail use or abandonment, invoking a federal provision for the rail spur to become a trail.

The lawsuit contends the easement for the railroad's right-of-way did not provide the ability to convent the railroad corridor into a public linear park. It also contends the federal government is constitutionally obligated to pay the landowners when the Surface Transportation Board invokes "Section 8 (d)" of the Trails Act.

That federal agency "does have legal authority to issue the order" for the rail spur to become a public trail, said Brinton, attorney for the plaintiffs.

"This does not effect a rails to trails project in any way," Brinton said. "This is entirely seperate...so the county is absolutely authorized to build this right-of-way. It's constitutional for them to do. But when this order was issued (by the Surface Transportation Board), it did constitute a Fifth Amendment taking, where the owners have to be paid ... by the federal government."

The Fifth Amendment protects the right to private property, particularly in the amendment's Takings Clause: “... nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

The Surface Transportation Board's order "is just another form of eminent domain, called invert condemnation, where the taking occurs first. And then if an owner wants to be paid, that owner has to bring a claim for compensation," Brinton said.

The law firm will stage three meetings next month for those interested in being a part of the lawsuit. Landowners need only to attend one of the meetings, which will be held at the Holiday Inn Express, 2645 S. Joe Fox St., Terre Haute. The meetings will be at 5:30 p.m. on July 7, at 9:30 a.m. July 8 and at noon July 8.

Those possibly interested in becoming part of the lawsuit also can call the Lewis Rice firm at 314-444-7777 or send an email to takings@lewisrice.com.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com. Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.

Trending Video