Country Lane residents vs. railroad case to go to trial

Sean C. Morgan

Following a June 13 ruling, Country Lane residents and the Albany and Eastern Railroad will go to trial over their dispute over permits and maintenance fees for their railroad crossing.

Linn County Circuit Court Judge David E. Delsman granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs, Albany and Eastern, on three of the residents’ claims, but denied the railroad’s motion for summary judgment on the residents’ claim of a prescriptive easement, which is similar to adverse possession.

Albany and Eastern, the plaintiff in the case, operates a rail line from Albany to Sweet Home. It purchased the railroad in 2007 and the underlying ground in 2012. Country Lane residents cross the rails to reach Highway 20.

Albany and Eastern is suing 14 individual defendants who live on Country Lane, most of them married couples, seeking relief from “trespassing,” including $720 for administration, maintenance and repairs and additional damages because the defendants have refused to cease “trespassing” on its property.

“We’ll be going to trial,” said Daniel C. Armstrong, the attorney representing the Country Lane residents. “We’re very pleased with the decision, and we’re ready to go forward. The main issue has always been the prescriptive easement.”

He expects the case to enter trial late this year or early next year.

Delsman outlined the history of the property and the resulting dispute in an opinion letter:

In 1910, Joseph Strickler divided roughly 75 acres near the South Santiam River into two parcels. He deeded the northern parcel to his daughter, Edna Strickler Murray. He deeded the southern property to his son, Robert H. Sharinghousen.

In 1928, Sharinghousen and Murray each sold a portion of property to a predecessor of the Albany and Eastern Railroad Company. Murray retained an easement across the railroad property. In 1942, Sharinghousen divided his property into several lots, where the defendants live today. The residents use the old Murray easement to cross the railroad.

Since the creation of the neighborhood, residents have regularly used the crossing. The railroad has always maintained the crossing and posted “no trespassing” signs, indicating it is a private crossing.

When Albany and Eastern purchased the railroad and land, it reviewed its records on inventory crossings. The railroad discovered that the Murray easement did not provide deeded easement to Country Lane residents. Albany and Eastern attempted to negotiate a permit, with a permit fee and maintenance fee, to authorize the defendants to use the crossing. The negotiations were unsuccessful, and Albany and Eastern revoked permission for the residents to use the crossing.

The residents are claiming a “prescriptive easement.” They must prove that they have used the crossing for at least 10 years in a “notorious and adverse manner.”

The railroad argues that the easement was “permissive,” which would defeat the “adverse portion” of the prescriptive easement claim. The defendants argue that their use of the crossing was “adverse,” offering the “private crossing” and “no trespassing” signs as evidence.

“Adversity of use is a disputed material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment,” Delsman said, denying the plaintiff’s request for summary judgment.