When the New York Central Railroad began to build its railway through the northwest Bronx in the 1870s, it did so by receiving an easement to use the property to carry its trains.
CSX Transportation, the latest owner of the railway, sold the property to the City of New York for $11.2 million. At that time, the easement remained. An easement is a legal right to use someone else’s land for a particular public use, according to New York law.
But as part of the long-proposed Tibbetts Brook daylighting/Putnam greenway extension, the city put the wheels in motion to use the abandoned rail line for the Tibbetts project. And once the federal Surface Transportation Board greenlit the conversion of the rail line into a recreational trail, for all intents and purposes the easement went away.
That has allowed landowners such as the 233rd Partnership L.P. to seek what they call “just compensation” for that property since they own the original rights.
However, an attorney representing 233rd Street Partnership told The Riverdale Press such a claim cannot hold up the Tibbetts Brook project.
“In New York state, when there is a public right of way easement and that is abandoned it reverts back to the original landowner,” said Michael Smith, a partner with Stewart, Wald & Smith LLC who is representing 233rd Partnership. “They are the successors who gave the land to the railroad in the first place.”
He stressed the only thing his firm is seeking is money for his client. And since the federal government was the party who took it originally, any property owner or successor for that rail property is allowed put in a claim, Smith said.
“Once the railroad informed the SFT (Surface Transportation Board) it is abandoning the right of way, the original owners can claim the land,” he said. But, there is no way such a claim could hold up the Tibbetts Brook project, Smith said, because the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled about the use of land for trails throughout other rails and trails properties.
“The claim would not hold up this project, absolutely not” Smith said. “Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t stop it.”
The property owner of 170 W. 233rd St. near the proposed Tibbetts Brook daylighting/Putnam greenway extension wants just compensation for that 0.77 mile land it once owned near the rail line that was taken by the federal government years ago.
The transportation board on May 26, 2023 approved converting the abandoned rail line to a recreation trail. Doing so is a major hurdle for the Tibbetts Brook daylighting plan. It was followed by an even more important action in August where the city’s public design commission unanimously voted to approve the project’s design to unearth the brook and extend the Putnam greenway from Van Cortlandt Park to Randall’s Island.
The daylighting project is designed to restore the hydraulic connection between the brook and the Harlem River and significantly reduce combined sewer outflow in the Harlem River by 220 million gallons per year.
The claim made by 233rd Street Partnership was filed on Aug. 18 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. While it spells out the reasons for the claim, it does not specify an amount the plaintiff seeks.
“All I can tell you is that the property is valuable,” Smith said. “We will get that information from an expert. But, we’re a long way from there.”
Smith mentioned one similar claim his law firm was involved with. In Furlong v. United States, his attorneys recovered $14.2 million on behalf of landowners along a 9.4-mile trail in Albany County.
He did mention his client in the CSX case has a six-year window to successfully make the claim. “At this point, that date would be May 26, 2029,” he said. “But at this point, only the adjacent owner of the property on May 26, 2023 can make a claim. It does not pass on to the successor of the current adjacent landowner.”