This story has been updated.
By Sean Keenan, contributor
Homeowners living on Flagler Avenue can’t talk about why they had to surrender some of their land to the Beltline.
After settling a lawsuit that Atlanta Beltline, Inc. lodged against more than two dozen households in northeast Atlanta’s Piedmont Heights neighborhood, residents living there are bound by a confidentiality agreement to remain tight-lipped about how the transit trail’s planning arm leveraged the federal government to seize portions of their backyards. The land grab was effectively an exercise of eminent domain.
But the homeowners’ legal battle with the Beltline has called into question the legitimacy of ABI’s property titles along the trail. Public records show that the corridor the Beltline bought may not have been properly abandoned according to federal law.
The Beltline’s Eastside Trail is slated to snake through the dirt behind Flagler Avenue, on a wooded arc of abandoned railroad property sandwiched between the Ansley Golf Club and the neighborhood.
ABI bought the land in a controversial sale about a decade ago, and in August 2015, Beltline officials told the neighbors on that street that they’d have to scoot their backyard sheds and gardens back towards their homes; they were supposedly encroaching ABI’s property.
The residents, some of whom have lived on Flagler Avenue since before the Beltline idea was conjured, wanted to stand their ground, rather than uproot their lawn decor and forfeit land they believed was rightfully theirs.
Residents and ABI officials scheduled a meeting on Jan. 7, 2016 to resolve their differences, according to court documents. They lined up a Jan. 11, 2016 discussion with Beltline officials and then-Atlanta Councilman Alex Wan, which homeowners thought would help sort out the debacle without having to go to trial. The property owners weren’t aware at the time that ABI had contacted the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates railroads. ABI officials had requested exemption from a procedure typically necessary to properly abandon a railroad before it can be sold.
On March 25, 2016, ABI Real Estate Asset Management Director Stacy Patton walked the dirt trail with a couple residents – further evidence, those property owners believed, that they’d be able to reach a compromise. But, on March 31, 2016 the Beltline sued the Piedmont Heights residents in Fulton County Superior Court, aiming to claim the small patches of their properties.
The homeowners’ legal team, Williams Teusink, fired back, claiming Norfolk Southern Railway Company had improperly sold the land in 2004, since the abandonment of the corridor lacked STB approval. That would mean the Beltline failed to properly acquire the title to the stretch of corridor to which it claimed ownership. The STB agreed that was the case but allowed ABI to amend the old paperwork necessary to take over the property.
Confronted with yet another roadblock, the “Flagler owners,” as the defendants are named in the lawsuit, asserted that the original owner, Jerome Bearse, who held the deed in 1869, never sold the title, but merely granted an easement to the first railroad company to use the land.
“As the Original Railroad Company (Georgia Air Line Railroad Company) held only an easement over the Northeast Quadrant Line, it lacked the authority to transfer title,” according to court documents filed by Williams Teusink.
But the Superior Court judge, referencing a 1949 ruling about a deed dispute, determined the “1869 deed” argument was null and void, and therefore the sale to ABI and its predecessors “conveyed fee simple” – total control to the buyer.
Then in September, apparently to strengthen its claim to the corridor, ABI entered into a Notice of Interim Trail Use agreement – oft-called a “rails-to-trails” deal – with Norfolk Southern. ABI’s use of the NITU to cement its control of the property was essentially an exercise of eminent domain.
So in early January of this year, after this two and a half-year legal melee involving these convoluted debates over how railroad companies should forsake unused tracks, the Flagler owners succumbed to the pressure and turned their land over to ABI.
The disputed chunks of land measured anywhere from four feet to about 40 feet, and Beltline officials claim the project requires every inch.
“The property was purchased with public funds and is necessary to complete the Atlanta Beltline,” ABI spokesperson Jenny Odom told “Atlanta Loop” in a statement. She did not respond to questions about the Beltline’s aggressive approach toward the property owners.
Residents had previously recruited Councilman Wan, and even Georgia Power – which oversees powerlines running behind Flagler Avenue and plans to move those wires in the near future – to help facilitate further conversations with ABI, but ultimately to no avail.
Atlanta Councilwoman Jennifer Ide, who was sworn into her District 6 post — previously held by Wan — around the same time the lawsuit was settled, lamented to “Atlanta Loop” that the dispute escalated this way.
“I do think it’s unfortunate anytime we have situations that’s arise that lead to the city and its residents and taxpayers going to court against each other, so it’s unfortunate that the situation developed and got to that point,” she said.
Ide also said she’d like to help ABI and the neighbors break bread.
“My role going forward is in helping to try to rebuild the relationship with the residents and with the Beltline, and to hopefully help people have some certainty about what the Beltline and Georgia Power’s plans are, and to move forward in a positive direction,” she said.
But this isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last time, the Beltline flexes its legal muscle to snatch property from trailside homeowners. Williams Teusink handed off their findings to Arent Fox, a larger, national firm, to help Atlanta residents living on the pending path hold onto their property.
Arent Fox has been reaching out to other Beltline neighborhoods to protect them from land grabs, such as the one Piedmont Heights residents experienced. One of the firm’s attorneys, Attorney Meghan Largent, is looking into a 4.4-mile stretch of old railroad land near Ormewood Park that was once controlled by AW&P/CSX.
Arent Fox told residents in a letter the land “was never formally abandoned and authorized for conversion to a public trail.”
“The railroad has said that they agree to negotiate with the Beltline,” Largent said. “The next step in the process would be for the STB to issue an order called a Notice of Interim Trail Use or Abandonment.”
“Georgia law does say if the railroad only has an easement for railroad purposes, then it couldn’t convert to a public park; it doesn’t own that interest in the land,” she added. “But the federal government says, ‘Well, we, the federal government use our supremacy power to say that they can.’”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of an ABI official. This story has been updated with the correct information.