Mount Airy landowners prevail in property claim against government

Aug. 18—The federal government paid $300,000 to a group of Mount Airy landowners who argued that they were owed compensation after the town started converting a railroad line running through their properties into a public trail.

CSX Transportation is the former owner of the railroad line, which is south of Prospect Road. In April 2021, the company filed a request with the federal Surface Transportation Board to abandon CSX's right to use the land adjacent to the line.

Under Maryland state law, if CSX had abandoned its right-of-way, control of the land connected to the railroad line would have been returned to the landowners.

In June 2021, however, the town of Mount Airy successfully petitioned the Surface Transportation Board to issue a Notice of Interim Trail Use or Abandonment, which allowed CSX to transfer its right-of-way to the town under the National Trails System Act.

The town finalized its purchase of the CSX railroad line for $870,253 in September 2021, according to yearly financial statements. With the purchase of the line itself and the transfer of the right-of-way on adjacent land, Mount Airy was free to proceed with its rails-to-trails project.

Meghan Largent, a federal takings attorney with the firm Lewis Rice, helped represent the affected landowners in their claims. Largent said her practice approached the plaintiffs and offered to take their case.

"Everything the town of Mount Airy and the railroad have done is perfectly legal," she said in an interview with The Frederick News-Post on Thursday. "The only problem is the federal government didn't pay these owners for the land they didn't get back."

The right-of-way extends 75 feet in each direction from the railway line, which is a little more than half a mile long.

The plaintiffs argued that the town's use of the land adjacent to the old railway line deprived them of the ability to benefit from that land. Additionally, the plaintiffs argued that the existence of a rail-trail on part of their property would diminish the value of their adjoining land.

The Justice Department eventually agreed with the arguments presented and reached a $300,000 settlement agreement with the plaintiffs:

— Jason Cuno

— Edward Garabedian Jr. and Joanne Garabedian

— Christopher and Rosemary Finley

— Sudhir and Sangeeta Verman

— David Maskeroni and Jennifer Bruce

— Dmitry Lukonin and Ekaterina Marakasova

None of the landowners could be reached for comment this week.

Largent did not disclose the amount that each individual plaintiff received, but said that roughly one-tenth of the money was earmarked for attorneys' fees.

Justice Department spokesperson Terrence Clark declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email on Friday.

The federal takings practice at Lewis Rice recently filed another claim on behalf of the affected landowners who were not involved in the initial settlement agreement. Largent said the deadline to add new claims has not yet passed, and she is hopeful that more eligible landowners will join the case.

"My expectation is that the government will treat those owners exactly the same as their neighbors," she said.

The initial settlement agreement did not include any changes to the right-of-way.

"The knee-jerk reaction to our cases is that they're anti-trail, but they're not," Largent said on Thursday. "Nothing we do through our lawsuits should impede or impair the trail in any way, including its funding."

The town of Mount Airy retains the ability to use the corridor for its rails-to-trails project west of Main Street.

In an email to the News-Post on Friday, Mount Airy Mayor Larry Hushour declined to comment because the town was not involved in the litigation.

CSX could not be reached for comment by phone on Friday.