Abandoned Railroad Right-of-Way Dispute

November 30, 2009 | Erin Herbold


The dispute in this case stems from a controversy between the County Conservation Board and a private landowner regarding the ownership of an old railroad right-of-way.  The Board was using the abandoned rail line as a nature trail, and the county conservation board filed a petition with the trial court to quiet title via adverse possession of the railroad right-of-way. The landowner disputed the Board’s claims, stating that he was the owner of the parcel after the railroad’s easement was extinguished. The original easement showed that the land reverted back to the original owner or the successors in interest of the parcel.  The trial court examined all of the transfers involving the land over time and traced the history of the easement.  The court concluded that upon the removal of the railroad, the land reverted back to the original owners of their successors.  The landowner was able to successfully show that he was, indeed, the successor in interest. 

The County Conservation Board appealed, arguing that the landowner’s rights were extinguished by the doctrine of laches and estoppel, that the Board had established ownership by adverse possession, and that the trial court had no right to quiet title in the private landowner. On the issue of adverse possession, the appellate court disagreed with the trial court, stating that the Board successfully established, through evidence of taking and maintaining the property, that they were the rightful owners. The Board was able to establish acts of ownership. Further, the railroad issued a quitclaim deed to the Board after the rail lines were deconstructed. Though the original grant of the easement stated that the land reverted to the original owners or their successors, the parties did not dispute the quitclaim deed at the time it was given by the railroad. Also, the possession was continuous over a period of ten years or longer, satisfying another element of adverse possession. Since possession was open, actual, hostile, exclusive and continuous for over ten years, the County Conservation Board had sufficient evidence to claim the land under a right of title in this case.  Louisa County Conservation Board v. Malone,778 N.W.2d 204 (Iowa Ct. App. 2009).