A proposed light rail system between Bethesda and New Carrollton cleared an obstacle Friday when Maryland’s top court unanimously held that a Chevy Chase resident does not own a section of property along the planned Purple Line.
In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals rejected Ajay Bhatt’s argument that the fence and shed he has had on the property along the rail line symbolize his legal claim to that land under the doctrine of adverse possession. The doctrine holds that property ownership transfers to the possessor if that possession was not interrupted by the owner for at least 20 years, and neither the railroad company nor the county objected until recently to the fence, which has been standing for the past 50 years, Bhatt said.
But the high court said adverse possession does not apply to railroad rights-of-way, which are akin to public highways. Highways cannot be converted to private ownership through adverse possession unless the government has abandoned the roadway through lack of use and upkeep, the Court of Appeals held.
Such abandonment never occurred in Bhatt’s case, as the Metropolitan Southern Railroad and its successors used the right of way for nearly a century until 1985 and then sold it to the county, which converted it for interim use by hikers and bikers as the Georgetown Branch/Capital Crescent Trail, the court said.
“The transition from railway to interim hiker/biker trail is a reasonable public use of the right-of-way and well within the County’s rights to establish,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the court. “Under the Rails-to-Trails Act, this transition from rail travel to a footpath would not constitute abandonment.”
Harrell, a retired judge, was sitting by special assignment.
“Naturally, we’re disappointed. We respectfully disagree,” said Jeffrey C. Seaman, who represented Bhatt in front of the high court. Seaman is with Whiteford Taylor & Preston LLP in Bethesda.
The dispute began in 2013, when Montgomery County issued Bhatt a $500 civil citation alleging the fence and shed that were built by previous owners of his property violated a law prohibiting landowners from placing structures in a public right-of-way. The District Court of Maryland for Montgomery County ruled in favor of the county in 2014 and ordered Bhatt to remove the fence and shed.
Bhatt appealed to the Montgomery County Circuit Court, which vacated the district court order and dismissed the citation issued by the county. In its opinion, the circuit court concluded that Bhatt could not be found in violation of the “public right-of-way” because the term itself only applies to property held by easement, whereas the county owned the right-of-way in fee simple.
After hearing oral arguments in the case in December, the Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court judgment, finding the distinction between property held as an easement and property held in fee simple irrelevant in Bhatt’s case.
In fact, the high court found, if the rail line had been held as an easement and been conveyed for railway purposes only, the right-of-way’s transition from railway to hiker/biker trail might have constituted an abandonment of the established public use.
But because there were no restrictions on the right-of-way when the county purchased it, and because Bhatt presented no evidence showing that the county abandoned the right-of-way, no right to adverse possession exists, Harrell wrote.
“We’re pleased with the decision – the opinion certainly speaks for itself,” said Robert J. Birenbaum, an associate county attorney for Montgomery County who argued the case in front of the Court of Appeals.
The case is Montgomery County, Md., v. Ajay Bhatt, No. 36, September Term 2015.
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer Steve Lash contributed to this story.