Atlanta landowners win federal lawsuit after backyards were seized for BeltLine public use

The federal government violated the fifth amendment when it seized portions of 32 private properties in the City of Atlanta without compensating the landowners. (Jasmine Robinson/WABE)

More than 30 City of Atlanta landowners who had large portions of their backyards taken for the construction of the Atlanta BeltLine trail will finally get paid for it.

This week, Judge Zachary N. Somers of the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. ruled that the federal government violated the fifth amendment when it took the land for public use under eminent domain but did not compensate the owners. The latest ruling comes a year after Somers rules that landowners could proceed with their lawsuit.

The “rails-to-trails” case has been a headache for homeowners that had 100 feet of their backyards seized. The questions on the top of everyone’s mind now: how much is their land worth? And when are the paychecks coming?

Former Flagler Avenue resident Gordon Ragan, who now lives near Piedmont Park, said knowing he and his wife will get something definitely takes the sting away from the lawsuits they endured from the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and the Atlanta Development Authority.

“I’ve always been pro Beltline,” Ragan said.

“It’s just the way the group kind of pushed us and told us to move all our stuff off the backends of our property, and we asked them what the timelines were and they wouldn’t give us anything,” he added.

The homes at the center of all this are adjacent to a former railroad corridor known as the “Decatur Street Belt.” A deed from 1869 has allowed several railroad companies to use the line: most recently Norfolk Southern Railway.

In 2017, Norfolk Southern filed a request to abandon a more than half-mile section of the line that borders the plaintiffs’ property. Around that time, the Atlanta BeltLine had its eyes on the open rail line.

“They wanted us to just abandon everything in our yards, and just take it, essentially by force.”

Gordon Ragan, former Flagler Avenue resident along BeltLine corridor

Meghan Largent is the counsel of record for the landowners and a member of the firm Lewis and Rice LLC. She says prior to filing their claim for the money they were owed, the landowners were sued. The BeltLine told them to remove so-called “various encroachments.”

“The encroachments included a children’s treehouse, a basketball court, sheds, fences, gardens,” Largent said.

“They were sued by the BeltLine,” she said. “They resisted. They wanted to keep these structures and improvements that they’d had back there for decades, and they lost.”

Largent says they were forced to remove all of those things out of backyards within 30 days, at their own cost.

The court has set a joint meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice on March 1st.

BeltLine officials told WABE after airtime that the agency is not a party to the referenced litigation, and does not have a comment.

Note of correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly labeled these Atlanta residents as owning land in Decatur.