On April 1, 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the ruling of Judge Stephen Bower of Elkhart Superior Court No. 2, that the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, Inc. are the owners of a disputed section of the Pumpkinvine corridor between County Road 35 and County Road 37.
“We have been waiting to make this announcement until the 30-day deadline for making an appeal to the state Supreme Court passed,” said John Yoder, Friends president. “That deadline was May 2, but we waited a few more days in case the appeal notification got delayed in the mail.”
Settling this case means that the Friends can now donate the disputed land to Elkhart County Parks with no cloud on its title, and that Elkhart County Parks can apply for state funds to complete the trail in that section. A portion of the trail is already finished west of County Road 37, but had to stop when it reached the disputed part of the corridor.
The legal arguments: a brief summary
The disagreement on ownership resulted from the fact that the Declaratory Judgment in a class-action law suit against all Penn Central corridors in Indiana (including the Pumpkinvine) awarded this small section of the corridor to the adjacent landowner, even though the original conveyance to the railroad showed that the railroad owned the land and could sell it to the Friends.
However, the Declaratory Judgment, released in 2004, also said that “it is not within the scope of this Declaratory Judgment to resolve title disputes between individual persons which may occur as a result of conveyances of portions of the Settlement Corridors prior to the entry of this judgment or otherwise, and that such disputes, to the extent any have arisen or may arise, must be resolved by the individual parties concerned.”
The Appeals Court said the Declaratory Judgment giving the land to the adjacent landowner did not apply to this section of the corridor because the Friends purchased the corridor in 1993 and the Declaratory Judgment wasn’t issued until 2004.
The Appeals Court said: “We agree with the [Friends of the Pumpkinvine] Nature Trail that the current title dispute clearly falls within the scope of this exclusionary clause.”
Since, the Declaratory Judgment didn’t control who owns the land, ownership is determined by the deed to the original railroad and its successors, which ultimately became the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, Inc. The Friends showed that the deed conveyed fee simple title to the railroad and then to the Friends. Two courts have now agreed.