Jan. 21—Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has settled a federal lawsuit with dozens of plaintiffs who contested that the agency illegally built its bicycle and pedestrian path on their properties without permission.
Eddy Cumins, general manager of the agency, announced the settlement, which was reached on Jan. 12, at the board of directors meeting on Wednesday. The litigation initially came from more than 130 plaintiffs in March 2021, but the court dismissed about 100 of those claims, he said.
"Although we believed SMART would be successful in litigating this lawsuit to trial, our insurance carrier determined it was more cost-effective to resolve the matter before trial," Cumins said.
"Probably most importantly, no SMART funds were used to settle the lawsuit, and SMART will continue to assert it is authorized and appropriate to continue to build pathways connecting our stations along the SMART rail corridor," Cumins said.
SMART's insurance providers, Associated Industries Insurance Co. and Old Republican National Title Insurance, took the lead in resolving the case and the settlement amount, said Julia Gonzalez, a spokesperson for SMART.
"The settlement amount of $612,000, inclusive of attorney fees, was based on a nominal amount per plaintiff intended to disincentivize others from pursuing similar legal action in the future," Gonzalez said in an email.
The plaintiffs, a mix of residents and business owners, filed the case in U.S. District Court of Northern California, alleging the transit agency lacked the authority in its easements to build the path along the railroad right of way through their properties. One of their attorneys, Thomas Stewart, said SMART's easement is only allowed for railroad purposes and not for a path.
By building the path, SMART is illegally taking the property from these residents without compensation and is therefore violating their Fifth Amendment rights, Stewart said in court filings.
"We settled the portion of it where landowners are adjacent to the trails that have already been built," Stewart said.
Stewart declined to comment further on the settlement because there is separate but related litigation pending in Sonoma County Superior Court.
In that case, plaintiffs are seeking to establish that SMART only possesses an easement over the plaintiffs' respective properties and that the potential future construction of a bicycle and pedestrian path within the rail corridor "clouds their title," said Matt Stevens, a SMART spokesperson.
"SMART continues to assert it owns the rail corridor, not just an easement," Stevens said in an email. "Also, despite of how title is held, SMART's enabling legislation provides for the construction of ancillary pathway, which are by definition 'railroad facilities.'"
The construction of a bicycle and pedestrian path along the rail corridor was a major selling point to Marin and Sonoma voters in 2008 to pass the quarter-cent sales tax that funds the system. SMART's vision of a 70-mile passenger rail line between Larkspur and Cloverdale also would include a path that runs parallel to the railroad.
About 28 miles of path have been completed and another 9 miles of trail are under construction. Projects underway include McInnis Parkway to Smith Ranch Road in San Rafael; South Point Boulevard to Main Street between Petaluma and Penngrove; Golf Course Drive to Bellevue Avenue between Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa; and Airport Boulevard to Windsor Road between northern Santa Rosa and Windsor.
Another 33 miles of path are planned and are in varying stages of project development, Stevens said.
Path advocates have been watching the litigation closely.
"We at MCBC are happy to hear that SMART has successfully resolved the lawsuit, and eagerly await the completion of Marin's remaining segments of the multiuse pathway," said Warren Wells of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition.
(c)2024 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
Visit The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) at www.marinij.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.