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State v. Hess

July 29, 2003

STATE OF MINNESOTA, THROUGH ITS DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES, RESPONDENT,
v.
DUWAYNE HESS, ET AL., APPELLANTS, THE FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF BEMIDJI, DEFENDANT.



Hubbard County District Court File No. C802135

Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Forsberg, Judge,* and Huspeni, Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. A deed executed in favor of a railroad that contains the limiting language that the "Conveyance shall continue in force so long as the said strips of land shall be used for Right of Way and for Railway purposes; but to cease and terminate if the Railway is removed from the said strips" conveys an easement rather than a fee simple determinable.

2. When a railroad ceases operation and removes its tracks from a right-of-way following the acquisition of a certificate of abandonment by the Interstate Commerce Commission, it has abandoned its easement in the right-of-way.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Huspeni, Judge*fn1

Reversed

OPINION

On appeal from summary judgment in this quiet-title action, appellant landowners argue that (1)áthe district court ignored limiting language in an 1898 deed and misread the deed to convey a fee simple determinable rather than an easement to a prior interest holder; and (2) respondent state took no rights in the property because the easement was abandoned by the time of the transfer to the state. Because we conclude that by its plain language, the 1898 deed operated to convey an easement in the subject property rather than a fee simple determinable, and that the railroad abandoned its easement in the property before the sale of its interest to the state for a public recreational trail, we reverse.

FACTS

Respondent State of Minnesota through its Department of Natural Resources (DNR) brought this quiet-title action to determine the status of title to a strip of land, formerly used by the Burlington Northern Railway Company (BNRC) as a railroad corridor and currently designated as part of the Paul Bunyan State Trail. Appellants Duwayne Hess, Brian Sandberg, and Amelia Sandberg have claimed ownership of the property and have blockaded the trail, preventing public use of a portion of the trail. Appellants claim that a deed executed in 1898 granting a right-of-way to the railroad conveyed only an easement, rather than a fee simple determinable, and that the railroad abandoned its easement in the right-of-way before it was conveyed to the state for a public recreational trail.

On April 1, 1898, the then-owners of the property in question signed a deed conveying an interest in certain-described property located in Cass and Hubbard Counties to the Brainerd and Northern Minnesota Railway Company. The deed stated that the owners did hereby grant, bargain, sell and convey unto the said company, its successors and assigns, a strip, belt or piece of land, one hundred feet, wide, * * *.

****

Provided That this Grant or Conveyance shall continue in force so long as the said strips of land shall be used for Right of Way and for Railway purposes; but to cease and terminate if the Railway is removed from the said strips.

The deed also contained language conveying the right to erect snow fences within one hundred fifty feet of the center line of the strips.

The railroad's interest in the subject property was subsequently transferred to the BNRC, then known as the Minnesota and International Railway Company. In 1985, the BNRC received a certificate of abandonment from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), allowing the company to discontinue service on the rail line between Brainerd and Bemidji, Minnesota. In its decision granting a certificate of abandonment, the ICC found that "[p]ortions of the right-of-way are suitable for other public purposes." The ICC denied, however, a request by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) and the City of Blackduck to declare the property suitable for public use for acquisition as part of the State Rail Bank Program. The ICC noted that a "public use" did not include keeping the track and materials intact for future rail freight use and that MNDOT had failed to submit the required information for seeking a public use condition. BNRC later attempted unsuccessfully to sell the property as a tourist line. The company removed its tracks from the right-of-way in 1986 or 1987.

In 1988, the Minnesota legislature authorized the purchase of the railway corridor by the DNR to create the Paul Bunyan State Trail for public recreation. See 1988 Minn. Laws ch. 679. Consequently, the BNRC negotiated a sale of the property for $1,526,000 and conveyed the corridor to the state by quitclaim deed in 1991. The DNR opened the recreational trail for public use in December 1991. Since it opened, the DNR ...


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