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Property owners along an inactive rail line between Yemassee and Port Royal might be entitled to compensation from the federal government, according to an attorney seeking to represent them before the U.S. Court of Claims.
When the line was built in 1872, property owners along the route sold easements to the railroad. Under South Carolina law, the easements would have disappeared when train traffic did, giving owners the rights to use the land, according to Thor Hearne, an attorney at the Washington-based firm Arent Fox.
However, when the track officially was abandoned by the Beaufort Railroad Co. in May 2009, the company kept its rights under a 1983 federal law designed to preserve track easements.
The Rails to Trails Act allows the federal government to override state laws by allowing the easement to be put to other public uses, Hearne said during an information session Tuesday at Beaufort's Hilton Garden Inn. The idea is that a company could resume train service without having to acquire easements all over again, Hearne said.
In November, the rights to use the Yemassee-Port Royal corridor were sold to the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority, which is putting water and sewer lines beneath the rails. Beaufort County Council also has discussed using the surface as a recreational trail or allowing a railroad operator to run a tourist train along the tracks.
About 10 property owners attended Tuesday's meeting, one of three Hearne has held this week. Hearne outlined his history filing claims for compensation against the federal government. He encouraged attendees to review a contract that would allow him to file claims for them.
Hearne likened the federal government's preservation of the railroad right-of-way to its use of eminent domain to acquire private property.
Like eminent domain condemnations, the government must pay the property owner for the taken land. However, unlike eminent domain condemnation, land owners are not notified when train tracks on their property are officially abandoned, meaning they often have no idea they may be eligible for compensation, according to Hearne.
That was case with Brent Cooper.
"I never got any notice about changes to my property rights," said Cooper, whose father bought the parcel on which he now lives in the 1950s. "I'm here out of curiosity to find out whether or not the easement has devalued the property."
One attendee asked Hearne whether rights to use the land might ever revert to the property owners.
"We can only get you compensation," Hearne said, downplaying that possibility.
Hearne said he has sent letters to about 200 property owners asking them to attend the session or sign an agreement allowing Hearne to file a claim on their behalf. Another attorney, Thomas S. Stewart of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice has sent similar letters to the land holders, according to Cooper.