Atlanta BeltLine project illegally grabbed land, judge rules; feds ordered to pay 32 landowners

A major court win for about three dozen property owners near the Atlanta BeltLine.

A judge has ordered the federal government to pay them after they were forced to give up their land for the construction of the trail.

The property mentioned in that lawsuit is in the Piedmont Heights neighborhood. 

The homeowners affected said the last five years have been tough as they faced litigation, but they feel vindicated and glad to know they may finally be compensated.

"I think they're relieved," Attorney Megan Largent said. "I think it's been a long time coming."

A look at part of the Atlanta BeltLine off of Flagler Avenue on Feb. 8, 2022.

A look at part of the Atlanta BeltLine off of Flagler Avenue on Feb. 8, 2022. (FOX 5)

Before construction, the portion of the Atlanta BeltLine off of Flagler Avenue was part of a railroad corridor.

In order to bring the greenspace to life, Attorney Largent told the agency seized an average of 6,000 square feet of property from each nearby owner.

"Many of them had structures on this property for a long time that Norfolk Southern had tolerated for decades such as a basketball court, a treehouse for children, fences, sheds, gardens," Largent said. 

A judge recently ruled that the U.S. government illegally allowed the Atlanta BeltLine to take portions of the property owners' backyards in 2017 without any compensation.

Thirty-two landowners were ordered to remove various encroachments on the right-of-way, at their own expense, for expansion of the project.

Largent is the lead attorney from law firm Lewis Rice that's representing the landowners. 

"What our lawsuit is about is that under Georgia law, they would have had nothing in their backyard. When Norfolk Southern decided to abandon this, that would have extinguished that easement and these owners would have had full enjoyment of that 100 feet. Federal law has preempted Georgia law...essentially it's eminent domain," she explained. 

A judge ruled 32 homeowners must be compensated after land was illegal seized to use for the Atlanta BeltLine.

A judge ruled 32 homeowners must be compensated after land was illegal seized to use for the Atlanta BeltLine. (FOX 5)

FOX 5 reached out to the Department of Justice which is named in this suit but didn't get a response.

Even though they're not a defendant in this suit, an Atlanta BeltLine spokesperson sent a statement addressing the 2017 Fulton County Superior Court's decision and this most recent decision out of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. It reads:

"Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. ("ABI"), as special agent for Invest Atlanta, is developing the Atlanta BeltLine over a former railroad corridor. ABI has acquired the railroad corridor in various transactions and has only asked adjacent property owners to remove items that were inside the railroad corridor. 

"Certain adjacent property owners brought claims in the United States Court of Federal Claims alleging that (i) the railroad never held title to the land inside the railroad corridor adjacent to their properties (based on their interpretation of deeds from the 1800s); (ii) they hold title to land in the railroad corridor; and (iii) the operation of the railroad corridor as a recreational trail entitles them to compensation from the federal government under the Rails-to-Trails Act (a federal law that encourages the use of former railroad corridors as recreational trails). ABI is not a party to the litigation in the Court of Federal Claims. 

"The February 1, 2022 order by the Court of Federal Claims reaches a differing conclusion than a September 19, 2017 order by the Fulton County Superior Court regarding the nature of the property interest conveyed to the railroad in 1869. The Fulton County Superior Court found that the railroad originally acquired title (rather than an easement) to this section of the Atlanta BeltLine. Although the two courts have reached differing conclusions about the property interest held by the railroad prior to ABI’s acquisition of the property, the Court of Federal Claims’ decision will not impact the continued development and operation of the Atlanta BeltLine. 

"ABI remains committed to working with their neighbors to ensure the successful completion of the Atlanta BeltLine project."

"This isn't against the trail. It's not negative to the BeltLine at all. It is simply saying we gave up 100 feet of our land for this without being asked and without being offered to be paid," Largent said. 

She said the next part of the case is determining just how much money these landowners will get. The Department of Justice could still appeal the judge's decision, but Largent said she doesn't think they will.