RFTA may call on Congress to clean clouded titles

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
A Rio Grande Trail user walks her dog along the stretch in south Glenwood Springs where the historic, 200-foot-wide railroad corridor cuts through what are now private yards. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is working with property owners to try to rectify things.
John Stroud / Post Independent |

Congress may need to intervene and help clean up titles for property owners in south Glenwood Springs and elsewhere along the Rio Grande Trail corridor whose yards, and in some cases houses, extend into the historic railroad easement.

“The way these things have been handled in the past is that Congress had to pass a private bill,” Dan Blankenship, executive director for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, said during a Garfield County commissioners meeting Monday.

Essentially, that means Congress would have to give permission to relinquish parts of the original federal land grants that helped create the Roaring Fork Valley’s railroad system in the late 1800s.

Blankenship did say there appear to be more recent examples that didn’t involved Congress, so it’s possible RFTA may not have to go to that extent.

Nonetheless, he said the agency remains committed to working with the impacted property owners, including several in the Cole Subdivision west of Highway 82 and the Rio Grande Trail in south Glenwood.

Approximately 7 miles of the 33-mile-long portion of the Rio Grande corridor that RFTA administers is tied up in federal land grants.

In those sections, the railroad corridor is 200 feet rather than the typical 100-foot right of way along most of the historic rail corridor, which now serves as a public foot and bike path but which is legally railbanked to preserve it for future rail reactivation.

A 2012 survey conducted by RFTA revealed where along the corridor those “encroachments” exist.

Rather than trying to reclaim those areas, RFTA agreed as part of its access control plan negotiations earlier this year to work with landowners to make sure their titles are not forever clouded.

The issue is rooted in federal railroad laws dating to the late 1800s, when much of the Roaring Fork Valley was not yet patented, RFTA Assistant Director Angela Henderson said in an interview last week.

“When the railroads were moving west, they would go out to each of the local jurisdictions to acquire property,” Henderson said. “In the sections that weren’t patented or where there was no one homesteading, the federal government gave a 200-foot grant.”

Due in part to lax record-keeping by the series of railroad companies that owned the line through the years, private parcels ended up being established within that 200-foot easement in places, she said.

“The Cole subdivision was one of those places that came into being assuming the right of way was 100 feet rather than 200 feet,” Henderson said.

RFTA, when it took over the former Rio Grande line from the coalition of local governments that acquired it in the late 1990s, had clear title to most of the corridor. But the federal land grant sections remain held under the line’s railbanked legal status.

Once all the legal descriptions are in order, RFTA can try to get the support of Colorado’s congressional delegation to carry a bill to release those sections, Henderson said.

RFTA, which only seeks to retain a 100-foot easement, could then quit-claim them back to the adjacent landowners, she said.

“We want to get it cleaned up as soon as possible,” Henderson said, noting that such federal action has not been accomplished since the 1990s.

Blankenship said RFTA will bear the cost of doing the research and initiating the legislative process if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, the very concept of using railbanking as a mechanism to keep the railroad corridor intact has been challenged by some downvalley government officials who oppose the restrictions contained in the access control plan.

Without railbanking, those federal grants would be relinquished and revert to adjacent property owners. To retain the trail/rail easement in those sections, RFTA would have to negotiate to buy back the land from those landowners.


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