Court will decide railroad battle but right answer may lie elsewhere

Sometimes life throws us a curve ball and that seems to be what has happened to Albany and Eastern Railroad and to the residents of Country Lane, located across Highway 20 from Harmony Road just west of The Narrows.

As reported on page 1 and thereafter, the two sides have been battling in court for four years over whether the railroad has the right to charge Country Lane neighborhood residents for maintenance and insurance to allow them to cross its rails to get to their homes from Highway 20.

It’s been back and forth, with the residents winning in Linn County Circuit Court and the railroad prevailing in state appellate court, which based its decision on a case that the Oregon Supreme Court had ruled on after the local court handed down its decision.

Last Thursday both sides got their final day in court.

The very fact that the Oregon Supreme Court was willing to hear the case suggests the justices either felt there needed to be further clarification, or they simply believed the appellate court ruled in error. We’ll find out.

Meanwhile, there has been a lot of high-falutin’ talk about “adversity,” “common roads,” “prescriptions” and “presumptions.” Heady stuff, but it really comes down to this questions: Did Country Lane residents use the crossing for the 70-some-year life of the railroad line while previous owners of the railroad put up with that, or did railroad owners actually encourage and invite them to use it?

If the railroad prevails and finds its way clear to charge landowners at every crossing along its lines a few Benjamins, that could add up considerably.

As explained in our report, the Country Lane folks are actually arguing that they and previous property owners in the neighborhood have basically been trespassing since at least 1953 to get to the highway, which would be an “adverse” use of the railroad’s property and, under state law, would therefore require the railroad to let them continue doing so, since it’s been going on so long.

The railroad is arguing that its predecessors welcomed the residents’ use of the crossing, even going so far as to install a crossbuck sign to facilitate their passage. If the Supreme Court justices rule that’s the case, state law would give the railroad the right to charge permit and annual maintenance fees.

As is sometimes true of the law, this case may not contribute a lot to a determination of what’s actually “right” here, at least at the common sense, fair-play level.

Previous owners of the railroad have all maintained crossings and allowed property owners to use them for nearly seven decades. The railroad bought the property at issue a century ago to build a rail line.

It stands to reason that any and every property owner along Highway 20 between Lebanon and Sweet Home at the time would want and expect to have a crossing to reach the highway.

In this case, for whatever reason, one property owner failed to get permission in writing to use the crossing, either because he made a deal with his sister to the north to use hers and the crossing she’d secured, or simply because he missed it.

Really, these little technicalities, while important in the legal case, are virtually irrelevant in the simpler world of right and wrong.

Selling a piece of property and land locking yourself is stupid. Even the most naive among us should recognize that.

But oversights happen. If that’s what happened here, the railroad should not hold the subsequent property owners responsible for that mistake, especially after 70 years.

A one-time owner of Country Lane may have struck a deal at the time to use his sister’s crossing.

The railroad reasonably should have known this was going on, and it didn’t do anything about that either, no doubt because the property owner reasonably and rightly should be allowed to access Highway 20 after graciously selling the land for the rail line – even it’s not formalized in an agreement with the railroad.

We know times were a little simpler in those days. This was back when a handshake meant something, and a man’s word was his bond.

But in today’s world, that makes it hard to sort through the legalities of things, and that’s unfortunate.

Country Lane residents and the railroad are really both victims here.

In a world where people did everything correctly and reasonably, those formal agreements would exist with the approval of all involved and a clear record. Nobody would need to spend money on lawyers here.

There’s more than just dollars and cents involved here. There’s social capital, goodwill, which still counts for something in east Linn County. If the railroad were to win, it might collect money, but nobody’s going to be very happy.

Whichever side wins here, nobody will, really. Rather than taking longtime residents to court, Albany and Eastern, a company that has contributed substantially to the community ( to Boys & Girls Club fundraising efforts in particular), might have been better off simply by continuing to treat residents – its neighbors – in the reasonable way its predecessors apparently did.

It certainly would have made things less complicated than essentially forcing them into making weird arguments about how they essentially trespass and interfere with railroad business in order to prove a right by adversity to use a driveway that’s been there for more than seven decades.