Rail-trails can be acquired from multiple entities. The Marcia H. Cloninger Rail-Trail in Lincolnton, NC was purchased from the railroad and private property owners - Photo credit Traillink.com

There are many ways to acquire a corridor for trail development. If an active line still exists on the corridor, you might consider a rail-with-trail. If the line is unused but still legally active, you might consider railbanking. If the corridor has been abandoned, you can use a variety of methods to acquire the corridor parcels.


Land can be purchased outright by either a nonprofit or a public entity. This option may be the simplest, but it can prove costly. It could also require reaching agreements with dozens of landowners, particularly if the railroad never owned the corridor in fee simple.

Option to Buy

An option is a legal document giving a person the right to buy. The document outlines the required price and applicable period, with a fee (often 10 percent of land value). If the property is bought, the fee is deducted from the purchase price; if the purchase does not proceed, the fee is nonrefundable. This option may be a good approach if you are interested in purchasing land but need to raise funds for the purchase.


An easement is a right to use another person's real estate for a specific purpose; in your case, a trail. Easements can be negotiated with private landowners as well as with public entities, such as a utility company. Because you are not purchasing the land, the cost is typically less than if you were to purchase it.

Land Donations

A landowner can donate property to an agency or organization. Tax credits may be available for land donated for conservation purposes.

Land Lease

In these cases, the land is rented from the landowner for a set amount of time. Leases can come from a variety of sources, including railroads, utility companies and public entities.

Purchase and Lease Back

An agency can purchase property and lease it to the previous owner for a specified period of time. This arrangement may include use restrictions and may be useful if the landowner wants to sell the land but wishes to continue using it, such as for grazing animals.

Bargain Sale

This refers to the sale of a property at less than the fair market value. The difference between a bargain sale price and fair market value often qualifies as a tax-deductible charitable contribution. You can use this method to avoid high capital gains taxes.

Eminent Domain

Property, or parts of property, can be forcibly taken from the landowner for use by the general public. This method is not recommended because it can create resentment toward the trail by the former landowners, and the acquirer is still required to pay fair market value for the property.



Topics in this section: