Government officials said they bought the Eastside rail corridor for use as a trail, but it turns out that wasn’t quite true. Now the courts are making them pay substantially more for it — at taxpayer expense.
Officials for the two local governments fist-bumped on that May 2008 day as the sale papers were signed. The deal cost taxpayers $81 million.
Except there was a huge red flag in those papers — a sizable legal caveat that was glossed over in pitching the deal to the public:
“Port and County acknowledge and affirm that BNSF may not hold fee simple title to the Property, that BNSF’s interest in all or part of the Property, if any, may rise only to the level of an easement for railroad purposes,” the contract read. “Port and County are willing to accept the Property on that basis.”
Meaning: The railroad didn’t own a lot of the land. For parts of the line, it was selling only the right to run a railroad. Nothing else.
“In a sense the railroad sold them the Brooklyn Bridge,” says Tom Stewart, a national plaintiffs lawyer.
As a result, last month the federal government agreed to pay out a huge settlement, $140 million to 253 property owners along the Eastside rail line from Renton to Woodinville. The money is compensation for using their land for the planned hiking and biking trail. A whopping $35 million of that goes as a fee to the lawyer, Stewart.