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Earlier this month, two attorneys from St. Louis-based law firm Lewis Rice hosted meetings in Estero to update landowners on potential timing of federal action to secure land for the proposed Bonita Estero Rail Trail project.  

The proposed project hit a milestone in February when the Trust for Public Land secured a purchase and sale agreement for $82 million with the Seminole Gulf Railway on a 14.9-mile segment stretching from Alico Road to Collier County for conversion to a hiking and biking trail. 

Attorneys Lindsay Brinton and Meghan Largent from the federal takings and rails to trails practice at Lewis Rice met with a handful of landowners to discuss why and how a claim can be made against the federal government, timing, how landowners will be represented in pursuing their takings claims and how compensation will be determined. 

The proposed sale brokered by the Trust for Public Land is now in its due diligence phase, and Lee County and any other entities including Collier County have until March 2026 to secure funding for the conversion. Brinton said federal approval is necessary before the actual sale happens. 

Proposed Bonita Ester Rail Trail project path“Under state law, the railroad does not have the right to sell this land to the Trust for Public Land or any of these local entities for nonrailroad purposes for a trail; they are not authorized to do that under Florida law and will need to seek federal approval,” Brinton said. “The federal government has a program called the Rails to Trails Act [of 1968] where a railroad can seek authority to essentially circumvent state law and sell the right of way to a nonrailroad for nonrailroad purposes. They have not yet initiated those proceedings in the federal Surface Transportation Board, but we anticipate it’s going to happen sometime this year.  

… They technically can’t sell the line until they have the federal approval, so I would anticipate they start seeking federal approval sometime this summer or early fall.”  

Brinton said when the federal government issues its order authorizing the conversion it constitutes a “taking,” and that is when her firm would file its case on behalf of any landowners seeking compensationwhich does not come from the government automatically. 

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