Beltline sues Piedmont Heights homeowners in property line dispute

Northeast Atlanta residents disagree with claim their yards are encroaching on Beltline land

Patrick Fitzmaurice bought his house on Flagler Avenue in 2012 in part because he knew one day the Atlanta Beltline trail would run behind his property. He says he and other residents along the northeast Atlanta street are fans of the project.

But Fitzmaurice is confused why he and more than 30 of his neighbors are now being sued by Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit tasked with planning and developing the 22-mile greenspace, trails, and transit project.

“I am tremendously taken aback,” he says.

On March 31, ABI filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court asking a judge to rule that it is the rightful owner of land near Ansley Mall envisioned as an extension of the Eastside Trail. Plus damages. But homeowners who abut the property argue the Beltline has no claim to the land in dispute — land they or past owners have made part of their yards with sheds, lighting, gardens, and playgrounds.

In the lawsuit — ABI has declined to comment citing active litigation — Beltline officials claim the property owners have “refused to vacate the land” in question and “cease and desist trespasses and encroachments upon it.” Officials say they need the judge to confirm the title to the land “prior to investing significant amounts of money and effort in connection with completing” the project. They’re asking a judge to confirm the Beltline’s claim to the land and order the property owners to move their fences and yard decorations.

ABI has quarreled with Eastside Trail landowners before over property lines. But what sounds like a fight over lines in the dirt could boil down to complex laws regulating railroad abandonment and legal processes that might not have been settled more than 10 years ago when developer Wayne Mason purchased the segment from Norfolk Southern for approximately $22 million. In 2007, ABI paid Mason $66 million to acquire the unused railroad corridor stretching between Ansley Park and DeKalb Avenue, a long strip of land that now includes the Eastside Trail.

Unlike the popular and paved path, the portion in question is wooded. The corridor, which shoots straight north past Piedmont Park and between Ansley Park Golf Course and Ansley Mall has been cleared but remains a relatively rustic intown hike. The backyards of single-family homes along Flagler Avenue abut the corridor north of the Montgomery Ferry Drive Bridge. Over the decades, while the rail corridor sat unused and densely wooded, some of the homeowners at the time expanded their yards and made improvements.

In late July 2015, Beltline officials surprised homeowners with certified letters saying they were encroaching on the Beltline’s land — the area is planned for a future transit line and stop — and to move along by Oct. 1. Beltline officials say in the lawsuit the Flagler owners refused to comply with the request and claimed they owned the land, which ranges from a few feet to more than 40 feet in the backyards.

Until now, the dispute has largely played out in legal letters and filings and conversations with landowners, including a Jan. 11 sit-down with Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan and lawyers representing Georgia Power, which maintains power lines along the corridor. Little did Flagler residents know that a few days prior, ABI attempted to fire what appears to have been the first and decisive legal shot in the battle.

In a filing with the Federal Surface Transportation Board, a largely overlooked yet powerful government agency that is a clearinghouse when a rail company bids farewell to a set of tracks, Beltline officials asked the board to declare that Mason did not need to receive the STB’s approval when it bought the corridor — and neither did ABI — and STB would not have to approve future land deals involving the segment.

“[The filing] was not disclosed to us at any time, not before, during, or after that meeting. And I would imagine if we had not stumbled upon it we would not know about it,” says Kyle Williams, the land-use attorney with the Decatur law firm Williams Teusink, who’s representing the homeowners.

On Jan. 26, the 26 households along Flagler Avenue objected and asked the board to deny the Beltline’s request, for discovery, and an oral hearing. Residents disagree with the claim that they don’t have an ownership stake in the disputed land and argue that a key step in abandonment process was not followed. Additional STB filings followed, including one by Norfolk Southern agreeing with ABI.

As recently as late March, some homeowners walked the trail with Beltline officials and left thinking they were working toward finding a mutually beneficial solution. Then came the lawsuit. As CL went to press, Williams had yet to be served a copy of the suit.

“We have seen nothing that they have put out either in their meetings with us or their pleadings that tells us we’re wrong on this issue,” Williams says, who stresses that the residents are defending their property rights, not attempting to derail the Beltline’s progress. “That said, we have consistently, since our very first response to their demands in August of last year, said, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about this.’ They have simply dismissed us and denied our ownership of the dirt.”

ABI has declined to comment in any way on the dispute and its legal approach.