Bookmark this page on your mobile

QR Code image

What is this?

Daily Court Reporter - News Wayne County landowners can challenge ownership of abandoned railroad line property


Wayne County landowners can challenge ownership of abandoned railroad line property

Dan Trevas, Supreme Court of Ohio

Two landowners will be able to pursue claims that through “adverse possession” they own portions of an abandoned rail corridor sold to Rails-to-Trails of Wayne County, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled.

A Court majority, in a ruling released recently, found that a Wayne County Common Pleas Court must conduct further proceedings to determine whether portions of the old Akron Branch railroad line—sold to Rails-to-Trails in 2009 for a multi-purpose path—belong to families who acquired land adjacent to the tracks. The Court ruled the trial court wrongly agreed with Rails-to-Trails that the landowners had not proven they exclusively possessed portions of the corridor where Consolidated Railroad Corporation (Conrail) removed the tracks from some time in the late 1980s.

Separately, the Court rejected the claim of a third set of landowners, Brian and Laura Bilinovich, finding that testimony indicated the railroad made it clear to the couple that it still considered itself the owner of the land. The Court also rejected a claim by the Bilinoviches and Joseph and Michele Koontz, that was based on their interpretation of the original 1882 deed conveying land to the railroad. The two couples argued that the deed provided that the land belonged to the railroad company as long as it was used for a railroad, and once it stopped being used for that purpose, the property automatically transferred back to the original landowners.

In rejecting the deed challenge, Justice R. Patrick DeWine indicated the lower courts relied on a 1929 Ohio Supreme Court decision about how to determine ownership of land that appears to be restricted for a particular purpose. Justice DeWine wrote the Court should no longer follow the precedent established by In re Petition of Copps Chapel Methodist Church but should rather use the reasoning of more modern property dispute decisions.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French joined Justice DeWine’s opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in judgment only, writing that he would not effectively overrule Copps Chapel and that the Court “should avoid disturbing any reliance Ohioans have placed on that decision.” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In separate written opinions, Justice Terrence O’Donnell and former Justice William M. O’Neill concurred in part, and dissented in part. Both would let stand the trail court’s granting of summary judgment to Rails-to-Trails giving the organization possession of the land. Justice O’Neill joined the portion of the majority opinion regarding the deed issue. He resigned from the Court on Jan. 26.

Landowners Contest Trail Sale

In 2009, Rails-to-Trails purchased an eight-mile stretch of the old Akron Branch that had been owned by Conrail. Don and Carolyn Koprivec, the Koontzes, and the Bilinoviches filed a lawsuit in 2011 to establish their ownership in portions of the corridor. All three asserted they owned the land through adverse possession, in which they were required to prove they had “open, notorious, and exclusive possession of the land for 21 years.”

The Koontzes and Bilinoviches also argued that a clause in an 1882 deed indicated if the land no longer was used for a railroad, ownership of the land reverted to the original landowners. They claim that language applies to their land, which was acquired over the years from the original owners.

Conrail began removing the tracks and wooden ties in 1987, and the parties disputed whether the work was completed before 1989. Rails-to-Trails claimed the landowners could not have exclusive possession because Conrail signed two license agreements with telecommunications companies to install underground lines along the track paths and that two companies had crews conduct maintenance on the land over the years. Rails-to-Trails also argued railroad employees walked the corridor and did work to maintain it.

The trial court rejected the deed claim. Relying on the Copps Chapel ruling, the court ruled that while the deed contained language indicating the land was conveyed for the purpose of constructing a rail line, it did not have any language that explicitly stated that the property would revert back to the landowners. The trial court also ruled all three landowners’ possession was interrupted by the license agreements with the telecommunications companies, the activities of those companies, and an inspection of the corridor by a railroad employee.

The landowners appealed to the Ninth District, which affirmed the trial court on the deed issue, but reversed the trial court on the adverse possession claims. The Ninth District ruled there were “genuine issues of material fact” about the activities on the land that required a trier-of-fact to sort out. Rails-to-Trails appealed the adverse possession ruling against it to the Supreme Court and the Bilinoviches and Koontzes appealed the deed challenge. The Supreme Court agreed to consider both issues.

Court Examines Intention of Deed Language

The majority opinion explained that deeds with restrictive language—such as terms that the property is granted to the new owner “as long as” it is used for a particular purpose—are understood to create a condition where once the land no longer is being used for that purpose, ownership of the land reverts to the original owner. The opinion noted that the trial court and the Ninth District relied on Copps Chapel, which seemed to rule that the only way the property reverts to the original owner is if the language explicitly says so when a stated event takes place.

The opinion stated that instead of looking for explicit terms establishing the reversion of the land to the original owners, courts need to examine the “four corners” of the contract document and determine the intentions of the property owners. The Court concluded the language of the deed did not condition the right to hold the land on its use as a railroad, rejecting the arguments of the landowners.

Land’s Possession Unclear from Testimony, Court Finds

The Court wrote that to obtain property by adverse possession, the person claiming ownership has to be in “exclusive possession.” However, exclusivity does not mean that all others need to be excluded from the land, but rather the person claiming the land needs to use the land like an owner would, granting permission to others who come upon it.

The Court held that the license agreements with the telecommunications companies alone would not be enough to interfere with the landowners’ claim of possession. The Court found that work done to maintain the lines, if it occurred with the permission of the three landowners, does not indicate the railroad company still owned the corridor.

The Court also found conflicting statements between the landowners and representatives of the railroad and telecommunication companies about any steps the railroad took after 1987 to ensure neighboring property owners were aware the company was still in control of the corridor. The Court concluded that a trier-of-fact should determine whether the railroad interfered with the exclusive use of the property by the Koprivecs and the Koontzes.

The Court rejected the Bilinoviches claim, noting that Brian Bilinovich met with a railroad representative on the property in 2002 and had about six conversations with the company about purchasing or leasing the corridor land. Those interactions led the Court to conclude Conrail still considered itself the owners of the land adjacent to the Bilinoviches’ property and that the Bilinoviches were not disputing it.

“It is hard to imagine a more direct assertion of ownership over a piece of property than a title holder standing on his property, inspecting it with another, and offering to lease it to that person,” the opinion stated.

Dissent Believed Railroad Maintained Control

In his dissenting opinion, former Justice O’Neill, stated he agreed with the majority on the deed issue, but concluded that Rails-to-Trails proved that none of the three landowners had acquired the property by adverse possession, and the trial court correctly ruled in Rails-to-Trails favor.

He wrote that the Bilinoviches and Koontzes obtained their property from Judith Wiley and her family. He noted that when Rails-to-Trials obtained the Conrail property, organization officers rode the entire length of the corridor on ATVs and observed gates across the land, but one were shut or locked, and at no time did any landowner inform them that they were trespassing or told to leave.

Wiley testified that in the 1990s a railroad employee walking along the rail corridor told her not to trespass on the land. Some of the landowners’ claims are based on the combined possession of the Wiley family and their own to reach the 21-year requirement. Justice O’Neill concluded that Wiley’s possession was clearly interrupted, meaning the 21-year threshold was not met at the time Rails-to-Trails bought the land. In regard to the Koprivec’s claim, Justice O’Neill wrote that Don Koprivec stated he “lacked any knowledge” of the maintenance crews or Rails-to-Trials coming on the property. Justice O’Neill concluded that does not meet the requirement to prove Koprivec treated the corridor as his exclusive property.

2016-0704. Koprivec v. Rails-to-Trails of Wayne County, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-465.

A pdf of the opinion is available at:

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Date Published: March 1, 2018


Supreme Court of Ohio


Three people charged for their roles in conspiracy to recruit poor and homeless people and file fraudulent tax returns on their behalf

Three people were charged in federal court for their roles in a conspiracy to recruit poor and homeless people to allow them to file fraudulent tax returns on their behalf, said U.S. Attorney Justin E. Herdman and IRS Special Agent in Charge Ryan L. Korner.

$8 Million available through Ohio’s Community Connectors Program

For the fourth year, community organizations, faith- or values-based groups and businesses are being asked to partner to encourage one-on-one mentorship in Ohio’s schools and help give more students access to role models who can motivate and inspire them.

U.S. Attorneys announce initiative to combat violent crime and drug trafficking

Recently, the three United States Attorneys for the Southern Tristate area: Robert M. Duncan, Jr., of the Eastern District of Kentucky; Michael B. Stuart, of the Southern District of West Virginia; and Benjamin C. Glassman, of the Southern District of Ohio, along with representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), state and local law enforcement and prosecutors, and other law enforcement partners announced the formation of a law enforcement working group, to enhance joint efforts to combat violent crime and drug trafficking in the Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio Tri-State area.

Ginseng hunters reminded about upcoming March deadline

American ginseng hunters are being reminded that uncertified root may not be possessed after March 31 without a weight receipt, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Anyone planning to keep uncertified ginseng beyond the deadline must schedule an appointment to get it weighed and documented.

Local government payrolls remain lean since recession

Employment in Ohio's public sector has not returned to pre-recession levels for the final month of each year.

New indictment charges Columbus MS-13 gang members with conspiracy to commit racketeering, including five Ohio murders

Total of 29 defendants charged by indictment or criminal complaint in Columbus

Accountants adjust to changes in tax law as filing season arrives

In the wake of the largest tax overhaul in 30 years that was signed into law last year, some Ohio tax professionals are helping their clients understand the impact on their upcoming tax returns.

Latest amendment to self-defense proposal draws constitutional criticism

Ohio prosecutors and public defenders took aim earlier recently at an amendment to a House bill that would puts the onus on the state to refute self-defense claims in shootings.

Three from the Akron area indicted for their roles in a conspiracy in which they forged the signatures of medical professionals to obtain thousands of Oxycodone pills and other drugs

Three people from the Akron area were indicted in federal court for their roles in a conspiracy in which they forged the signatures of medical professionals to illegally obtain thousands of Oxycodone pills and other drugs, law enforcement officials said.

Theory that brake dust led to asbestos-related death does not meet Ohio law

A theory which posits that every nonminimal exposure to asbestos can be a substantial factor in causing asbestos-related disease is inconsistent with Ohio’s test for causation, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.

Ohio’s 529 plan celebrates new milestone

Effective Jan. 1, 2018, the state income tax deduction for contributions made to Ohio’s 529 increased to $4,000 for Ohioans. Passed by the Ohio General Assembly, this expanded tax benefit further encourages current and future CollegeAdvantage 529 Plan account owners to save for their children’s future college costs. Other tax advantages for saving for college in Ohio’s 529 Plan include tax-free earnings, so every dollar is yours to use, and tax-free withdrawals when used for qualified higher education.

IBAHRI open letter calls on President Xi Jinping to end persecution of legal professionals in China

In an open letter to His Excellency Mr Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has called for the cessation of the persecution of human rights lawyers in China and for adherence to the international legal instruments that safeguard the independence of legal professionals.

Herd of proponents offer testimony in support of legalizing residential livestock

Fans of urban farming and some of the latter-day homesteaders themselves turned up for the most recent hearing of a bill that would legalize some residential livestock throughout the Buckeye State.

Supreme Court of Ohio upholds death sentences of man who Used Craigslist to lure victims

The Ohio Supreme Court has affirmed the convictions and death sentences of an Akron man who used employment ads on Craigslist to lure men who he robbed and murdered.

New Bridges Program to help former foster youth achieve independence

A new program launching this week will help former foster youth more successfully transition to independence, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and the Child and Family Health Collaborative of Ohio announced. The voluntary program, called Bridges, extends housing and other supportive services to eligible young adults who leave foster care on or after their 18th birthday but are not yet 21.

Bill aims to remedy third-party practice of rejecting lawful powers of attorney

Lawyer and small businessman-cum-legislator Democrat Rep. John Rogers of Mentor-on-the-Lake has championed a bill that addresses a growing problem of third-party institutions rejecting lawful Ohio powers of attorney.

Bill designed to increase student safety with stricter system of alerting parents

The Cleveland senator sponsoring a bill that would require all Ohio schools to adhere to a strict absence-phone-call policy expects to get a vote before the Ohio Senate in coming days.

Rockets Notch 11th Win in Last 12 Games with 82-74 Victory over Ohio

Toledo raced out to a 15-0 lead in the game's first five minutes en route to a wire-to-wire 82-74 victory over Mid-American Conference East Division foe Ohio. The victory was the Rockets' fourth in a row and 11th in last 12 outings and kept UT (19-7, 11-2 MAC) in a tie with Buffalo (19-7, 11-2 MAC) for the conference's best record.

Supreme Court of Ohio heard three oral arguments on Wednesday, February 14th, including a dispute over whether a shared parking lot can be included in a stores tax valuation

The Ohio Supreme Court heard three oral arguments on Wednesday, February 14th, including a challenge brought by a grocery store that claims the state tax appeal board inappropriately added the value of a parking lot not owned by the store to its tax valuation.

Attorney General DeWine files lawsuit against DuPont for releasing toxic chemical into Ohio for decades

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine recently filed a lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont, alleging that for decades, DuPont released a toxic chemical from its plant on the Ohio River, despite knowing the risks it posed to Ohio’s citizens and natural resources.