Washington Appellate Court Affirms Dismissal of Homeowners’ Adverse Possession Claim Regarding Railroad Corridor

The Court of Appeals of Washington recently held that homeowners who owned property bordering a former railroad corridor now owned by the county could not adversely possess some of the corridor.  See Neighbors v. King Cty., No. 2020 WL 5629699 (Wash. Ct. App. Sept. 21, 2020).  The action involves land previously used for railroad tracks, and which the railroad company obtained via both adverse possession and easement.  In 1998, the property was conveyed to King County via quitclaim deed, and the County then obtained a survey showing the property—which was converted into a trail—was 100 feet wide in the areas at issue in this litigation.  Plaintiffs then brought this action, claiming that the easement was only the width of the railroad tracks, ties, and ballasts (about 12 feet) and, even if the easement was 100 feet wide, plaintiffs took some of that property back via adverse possession.  The trial court granted the County’s motion for summary judgment. 

The Court affirmed.  First, the Court found that government surveys constitute presumptive evidence of the facts therein, and referenced maps and surveys from 1917, 1930, 1940, and 1998, all of which showed a 100-foot wide corridor.  The Court rejected plaintiffs’ claim that a government survey should not be entitled to any presumption if the government is using that survey in an action against a private party:  “government officials are presumed to have performed their duties legally and professionally.”  Second, the Court found that the adverse possession claim was properly dismissed because “the County is immune from adverse possession claims for its public lands under RCW 7.28.090.”  Third, the Court found that even if plaintiffs had alleged that their adverse possession claims had ripened before the County purchased the property in 1998, they would be preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, which preempts adverse possession claims against railroads.  49 U.S.C. § 10501(b).  The Court finally found that, even if the adverse possession claims were not barred, plaintiffs did not have an adverse possession claim.  Even if plaintiffs were able to show that they had adversely possessed a portion of the property while it was owned by the railroad, the County began maintaining the corridor in 1998 and would have adversely possessed it back.

For a copy of the decision, please contact Michael O’Donnell at modonnell@riker.com, Michael Crowley at mcrowley@riker.com, or Anthony Lombardo at alombardo@riker.com.