In Anne Arundel County’s long-running saga on whether to extend the WB&A Trail into Prince Georges County or build the northern detour suggested by the late Buz Meyer, people often bolster their case by talking about who owns the right of way. Those who favor extending the WB&A often point out that Anne Arundel County owns the right of way along the Meyer property. Those who favor the Buz Meyer trail usually say that the Meyers own the WB&A right-of-way. When I recently suggested paying the Meyers at least $1 million for the WB&A right of way, one member of the Meyers family told me that he would not want to make such a deal; another Anne Arundel resident who favors the WB&A extension admonished me for suggesting that the Meyers should be paid anything, because "they don’t even own the right of way. "
Only a court can finally resolve the question of ownership. But the Anne Arundel County land records tell enough of the story for WB&A advocates to take seriously the Meyers claim to owning that land. They also help show why that claim—while strong—should not necessarily prevent building a trail along the WB&A right of way.
The story is typical: The owners sell the railroad an easment, and gradually forget that they still own the land under the tracks. The railroad closes, and those who buy the right of way come to think they own the land, or at least come to think that they can have it because the true owners have gone. They sell their claim to a locality that has already built trails on land with similarly cloudy titles. But in this case, we have a surprise ending: Some of the owners are still around, they realize that they are still part owners, and they tell the government to get off their land!
Jacob and Bertha Meyer bought their six-hundred acre farm on October 26, 1900. On November 20, 1901, the Meyers conveyed to the Washington and Annapolis Electric Railway an easement 66 feet wide for a railroad. The deed is in cursive writing and not easily decipherable. (I am grateful to Aaron Marcavitch for help in preparing a print version that has most of the text, although there are still a few phrases we were unable to translate.) The deed included a payment of 50 cents for each grape vine removed. It also referred to the sale of some gravel lands, but their locations are unspecified.
The company changed its name to the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railway in 1902, and began running trains from Baltimore to Washington via Odenton in 1908. In November 1906, before the line opened, the railroad paid Jacob and Bertha Meyer $774 for a 15-year license to mine earth and gravel within a clearly specified 10.24 acre portion of the Meyer property, along the rail line. But in 1915, the railway agreed to terminate the mining lease; in return the Meyers conveyed 0.6 acres in fee simple to the WB&A railroad on the northwest side of the tracks.
How the Meyers forgot they owned the land under the tracks
Jacob Meyer died in 1926 about a month shy of his 68th birthday. Following the wishes of her late husband, Bertha Meyer divided the land into six parcels, as shown in the left map, which I’ve annotated to make some of the smaller letters visible on the screen. The six parcels were conveyed on April 24, 1928.
- Lot 1 went to Martin Meyer and his wife Hedwig Sophia Meyer
- Lot 2 went to Paul Henry Meyer and his wife Emma Wilhemina Meyer
- Lot 3 went to Charles Dewey Meyer
- Lot 4 went to Joubert Russell Meyer and his wife Gertrude Anna Meyer. Joubert (also known as Schubert) was the father of Buz Meyer.
- Lot 5 went to Emma Meyer Simpson and her husband John Thomas Simpson
- Lot 6 went to Otto Jacob Meyer and his wife Anna Frederika Meyer .
For reference, the map to the right superimposes the lot boundaries over the site plan of the Preserve at Two Rivers. The rail line was the border between lots 4 and 6. If you zoom into the original (or read subsequent conveyances of these lots) you can see that Bertha Meyer did not convey the land under the railbed to either Joubert or Otto. So she continued to own that land, subject to the easement for rail line. (Perhaps by mistake, she conveyed the 0.6 acre parcel to Otto, even though it had already been conveyed to the WB&A in 1915.)
As far as I know, Bertha Meyer and her children never thought about who owned the land under the tracks. The railroad was still running so it did not really matter. If it wasn’t mentioned in anyone’s will—which seems likely—then the ownership may have been split between her children, then her grandchildren, and lately to her great grand children. But they didn’t know it.
How the easement holders came to think they owned the land too
The WB&A ceased operating in 1935, and filed for bankruptcy. The bondholders formed the WB&A Realty Corporation and bought most of the real property for $16,100. The next year they sold right of way between Odenton and Bowie to the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington Railroad Company, which was a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The WB&A Realty Corporation reserved for itself the right to convey utility easements. In the case of the roadbed along the Meyer property, WB&A Realty had no right to convey utility easements, because all it owned was an easement to build a railroad line. So for that parcel it was actually reserving a right it did not have. But it still sold an easement to Consolidated Gas Electric Light and Power Company for a power line a year later, and those power lines are used by Baltimore Gas and Electric even today.
A series of railroad mergers created the Penn Central, which sold its interest in the old WB&A lands to Peppercorn Realty in 1988. After building the Piney Orchards Development, Peppercorn Realty conveyed the right of way to Anne Arundel County for $10, reserving for itself various utility rights that it did not really have (because WB&A Realty had already reserved such rights, which it probably did not have either) and including a covenant against using the right of way for a rail line.
Anne Arundel County understood that it was not buying clear title to the land. The deed was called a “quitclaim deed” with all sorts of disclaimers. But that did not stop the County from building the WB&A Trail. This is a fairly standard practice: Localities build rail trails on land for which they do not have clear title, because the actual owners have abandoned their interest. Neither the common law nor common sense wants property tied up forever just because it is technically owned by the descendants of an original owner when those descendants are uninterested in behaving like owners. In the rare case when these owners do step forward, the locality pays them for their property. As with the Meyer property, many old farms have been subdivided with lots that go up to—but do not include—a rail line. By the time the railroad closes, often the original owners have sold all the parcels to strangers, and forgotten about their underlying ownership in the rail bed. After the trail has been operating a few decades, the locality will have clear title through the doctrine of adverse possession.
These owners of the underlying land usually do not get a tax bill either. At first, when the railroad is operating, the value of the land subject to the railroad easement is trivial, while the roadbed itself is valuable. So the county focuses on taxing the railroad. If the underlying landowners got a tax bill, they would realize they own the land (and the county would collect more money). After a few generations, without even getting a tax bill, the descendants have no idea they own the land. The owners of the easement end up getting taxed as if they own the land in fee simple, which they may be willing to pay because they are happy to own the land in fee simple. If they sell their interest to the county, then the county has no one to tax. The tax assessment office generally does not do title research to ascertain the actual ownership.
Just in time, the Meyers realized they still own the land
That typical pattern is pretty much what happened to the Meyer parcel for the first 65 years after the rail line closed. Bertha Meyer and her children did not reclaim their land. They could have objected to the electric company putting power lines across their land without permission, but they allowed it as if the abandonned rail line was not their land. Some highway maps showed the roadbed as a public road.
But then in 2000, the prospect of the WB&A Trail got the Meyers interested in the old right of way. Buz Meyer (co-owner of lot 4) opposed the trail. Press accounts suggest almost a “Eureka” moment for Meyer when, after launching a campaign to stop the WB&A Trail from crossing the Patuxent, he realized that he was a part owner of the right of way. An article in the Baltimore Sun said that the lawyers for Anne Arundel were sloppy and failed to do a title search before starting court proceedings to obtain clear title to the right of way. I’m not sure that’s the case—it seems possible that the county lawyers were simply following a standard procedure for settling title and paying valid claims in this type of a situation.
Before a court had the opportunity to decide the question, County Executive Janet Owens directed county staff to abandon plans for a bridge across the Patuxent along the old right-of-way, and drop the court proceedings. I cannot rule out the possibility that the county has an arguable case for being the owner of the right of way; but I am not sure what that case is. Adverse possession is possible; but it seems that if anyone had a claim for adverse possession it was the WB&A Realty Corporation for selling easements on the land, not the Pennsylvania Railroad which seems to have done nothing with the right of way. But the county never bought the interests of WB&A Reality. Of course, Anne Arundel has a strong case for owning the 0.6 acre parcel within lot 6, now part of the Preserve at Two Rivers.
The land records support the assertion that the descendants of Jacob Meyer own the WB&A right of way near the Patuxent River. Anne Arundel owns a 0.6 acre parcel within lot 6, and would have an easement by necessity along the right of way if it wanted to make that small parcel a park. But such a park seems unlikely. Although most of the Meyer descendants are still in the area, a few have moved out of town and it is possible that some of them either like trails or would sell their share if offered a fair price. If a trail conservancy or government agency became a part owner of the rail bed, it could probably negotiate a partition of the land to facilitate a compromise trail: for example, a trail that crosses the Patuxent along the old right of way, but stays away from those areas where a trail would be most problematic to the Meyers.
To be sure: It currently seems administratively easier to build a bridge connecting the Buz Meyer detour trail to the Patuxent River Trail near Bowie State University, than to work out an arrangement with the Meyers for a bridge along the WB&A right of way. But the direct trail is worth more and costs less. How much less? We don't know, so no one really knows whether the better trail is worth the hassle of pursuing it. That's why we need a study.
(Jim TItus lives in a house in Glenn Dale, Maryland, whose main floor is supported by salvaged rails from the WB&A electric railway, with the inscription "Carnegie 1901".)