Homeowners who had land seized for Atlanta Beltline to be repaid for property taken

ATLANTA — A lingering legal dispute over property taken for part of the Atlanta Beltline is going to produce a pay-out for nearly three dozen property owners.

That’s the ruling from a little-known federal court in Washington.

Most property owners understand that a public agency like the Atlanta Beltline or a school board (even a utility) can condemn and take your property as long as the agency pays fair market value up front.

In this case, a bewildering thicket of state and federal law -- and railroad law -- meant that 32 owners along Flagler Avenue lost thousands of square feet of their backyards five years ago -- and got nothing.

That’s going to change, but it could be delayed if the federal government decides to demand a trial over the amount it will have to pay.

The dispute centers on a federal law that allows local governments to build trails for public use along the rights-of-way of unused railroad lines.

Norfolk Southern had a 200-foot right-of-way behind the homes on Flagler Avenue when the Beltline seized the property for a half-mile stretch of its project in 2017.

Neighbors were stunned -- and furious.

“We literally thought this was going to be our backyard until the day we sell it. So it was quite a surprise when 6,000 (square) feet of this was taken away from us,” neighbor DeWayne Bentrager told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher.

Neal Rhoney lived on Flagler Avenue at the time but has since moved. He is still part of the ongoing litigation. He recalls the stretch behind their homes as overgrown and abandoned.

“For years this was derelict. I mean, there were homeless villages back here,” Rhoney said.

Rhoney said he figures he lost between .15 and .20 acre of what they’d long considered their backyards -- with the acquiescence of Norfolk Southern.

“A substantial piece of property for in town. And just like DeWayne, our fence was there long before we bought the house in 2004,” he told Belcher.


Dewayne Bontrager recalls the fence marking the line where the railroad had long allowed them and others to use the land. It came to about the mid-point of the Atlanta Beltline today.

Their backyards were about to shrink significantly, and most property owners wanted to push back.

“We all have the same understanding as far as our land rights. So it was like, no, you’re not just going to seize the property that we own,” Bontrager said.

But when the neighbors took the Beltline to court, a Fulton County judge concluded they did not have a right to the abandoned railroad right-of-way.

Then a legal expert in these complicated “rails to trails” cases took them down a different road that led to Washington.

St. Louis attorney Meghan Largent emphasizes where the dispute began: “Back in 2017, the federal government issued an order that took their property.”

She convinced the Flagler homeowners their beef was rightly with DC, not the Beltline. She challenged the loss of their property in an obscure federal court, the Court of Federal Claims, which handles all disputes in which someone is demanding more than $10,000 from the federal government.

Earlier this month, a judge delivered some good news.

“Before the judge’s decision, it was still a question of whether the government had to pay them at all. Now the question is how much, not if,” Largent told Belcher.

Largent said the judge ruled the Beltline neighbors did have a right to the property in dispute.

Bontrager said everyone will welcome some delayed compensation for the lost land, but it’s about more than money.

“You know it’s the principle. You just feel like something’s been taken away from you that you just really thought was yours,” she said.

In a statement, the Beltline notes that the federal court reached a different conclusion about the railroad property than the Fulton County Superior Court did five years ago, but “the decision will not impact the continued development and operation of the Atlanta beltline.”

Largent said the process of determining the compensation the property owners will receive begins with court filings in DC early in March. She said the process could result in a non-jury trial if her clients and the U.S. Department of Justice can’t agree on the compensation.

Largent says there will be no windfall for the Flagler homeowners because they’ll be paid fair market value as of 2017 -- plus interest.

Largent declined to speculate on the amounts the homeowners will receive, but Rhoney’s estimate that he lost .15 to .20/acre and Bontrager’s estimate of losing 6,000 square feet (.138/acre) may offer some guidance: 32 times the lowest figure would amount to about 4.4 acres of town property.