Arent Fox has filed an appeal (appeal brief available here) on behalf of a New York City landowner whose property was taken by the federal government for the creation of the well-known “High Line” rail-trail park.
New York City’s “High Line” railroad corridor was built in the 1930s as an elevated railway viaduct running through Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen. It was built to allow goods to be shipped directly to and through factories and warehouses and was elevated in order to protect and not interfere with pedestrians and vehicles traffic. Because train traffic along and across New York City streets was so dangerous in the 1930s, one New York City street near the High Line had been nicknamed “Death Avenue.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, after trains stopped running on the High Line, the viaduct became an overgrown, rusted eyesore, and its neighbors petitioned the federal government to have the railroad tear it down. New York City and a trail group instead urged the federal government to allow it to become a rail-trail under the federal Trails Act. The new High Line rail-trail has become a world-renowned tourist destination featuring amazing views of the city as well as art and dance shows, craft fairs, garden tours, Tai Chi classes, Latin dance parties, stargazing, and food truck vending. But all of this has been at the expense of the landowners along and underneath the High Line, who have had their land taken for public recreational space and the usage and development of their remaining property severely restricted.
Arent Fox’s appeal seeks to overturn the erroneous ruling of the US Court of Federal Claims, which held that the 1932 agreement whereby the original landowner conveyed a railroad easement to the city for construction of the High Line was broad enough to encompass a future public park. The trial court was wrong to conclude the 1932 easement allowed New York City to use the landowner’s property for any use it desired, including public recreation, taco trucks, and Latin dancing.
The popularity of the High Line as a repurposed public park and gathering space does not excuse the federal government from its constitutional obligation to justly compensate a private landowner whose property was taken.