Forgotten Railroad’s Land Makes a Great Back Porch
June 17, 2011
By: Sam Roberts
Talk about the reverse of not in my backyard!
You’d never know it from the looks of the swimming pool, back porches, patios, makeshift garage, basketball hoop, parking lot for five cars and other suburban amenities squatting in the middle of a square block in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, but they occupy a 20-foot-wide corridor that is officially a railroad right-of-way.
Fortunately for homeowners who abut the 520-foot-long strip and have all but appropriated it, that branch of the New York, Brooklyn and Manhattan Beach Railway ceased service a century ago. Moreover, the line’s legal successor, the Long Island Rail Road, seems to have, er, lost track of the property.
Earlier this year, when the owners of a two-story house and an adjoining vacant lot on East 18th Street sued to legally claim the railroad land that borders their property, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which acquired the Long Island Rail Road in 1965, replied that neither it “nor any of its affiliates have had nor now have any interest in” the defunct railroad.
In fact, however, the transportation agency acknowledged that the corridor formally belonged to the Long Island Rail Road, which, in 1925, when it was a private carrier, acquired the New York, Brooklyn and Manhattan Beach line.
“If they lost that land, it belongs to the homeowners,” said Michael Abdullah, who owns a fastidiously renovated corner house on East 18th Street and Avenue V. “And even if the railroad owns it, what would they do with it?”
After searching its tax records, the city’s Finance Department declared last week that the right-of-way was an ownerless “alley,” even though, unlike most alleys, it was not publicly navigable. A spokesman for the department said, however, that access from the alley to the block’s interior lots increased their value, which means their assessed valuation and property taxes were probably higher than if the lots were not accessible.
“The trains were gone a long time ago,” said Sally Freedman, who bought a mock Tudor house at 2130 East 18th Street in 1957, “but we absolutely knew about it when we moved in.” Two years later, she and her husband joined other homeowners in formally recognizing each other’s right of access to the section of the railroad corridor that abutted their property.
“We closed the right-of-way,” Mrs. Freedman recalled. “Other people have been building on it and expanding their houses.”
In 2007, the Freedmans sold their house for $595,000 to Phoebe Wu and Wei Sen Chen, who filed the recent lawsuit — invoking a version of squatters’ rights known legally as adverse possession — against the New York, Brooklyn and Manhattan Beach line. Through their lawyer, Peter E. Sverd, they declined to say why they decided to sue now or whether when they bought the house they were aware that a railroad still owned a slice of their backyard, where they have installed a brick patio and a mammoth above-ground pool.
“I had no idea,” said Dimitri Andreenko, 23, who grew up down the block from Ms. Wu in a house his parents still own. “There are no remnants of it whatsoever. My father built an awning over the backyard so he can park his car there.”
The existence of orphaned properties similar to the abandoned railroad right-of way could be a bonanza for title searchers, who assume there are many more undiscovered ones. “There very well may be, and in a city the size of New York with as varied and complicated a history, I would have to assume it is highly likely,” said Brian D. Tormey, executive vice president of TitleVest, which conducted a title search of the right-of-way for The New York Times.
According to TitleVest’s search, the right-of-way and adjacent property was purchased from the Stillwell family in 1877 for a narrow-gauge railroad to speed guests from ferry landings in Bay Ridge and Greenpoint (through East New York) to the spectacular Manhattan Beach Hotel (its dining rooms could accommodate 4,000 people simultaneously) and bathing pavilion being built by Austin Corbin, a railway baron who would consolidate several labyrinthine lines, including his new Manhattan Beach branch, into his Long Island Rail Road.
Thirteen trains a day carried passengers on the Manhattan Beach line south from Flatbush to the hotel and a race course in Sheepshead Bay on tracks that ran just west of East 18th Street and about three blocks east of the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad (which eventually became the Brighton elevated line, now served by the B and Q subway trains; a phantom staircase to its platform still stands at Avenue V and 16th Street).
The Manhattan Beach Hotel was razed in 1907. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the branch’s tracks were removed in 1910. Most of the branch’s land, including most of the block on East 18th Street between Avenues U and V, was sold by the Long Island Rail Road in 1924 to a developer, the Lezbern Building Company. The two-story homes were built the next year.
The 12 lots on the west side of East 18th were only 28.44 feet deep because, for whatever reason, the railroad apparently retained the right-of-way, the title report showed, so the semi-detached houses had virtually no backyards. (A typical lot is 80 to 100 feet deep.) A spokesman for the transportation agency speculated that the strip adjoining the East 18th Street lots might have been acquired for a station platform or some other purpose that was abandoned.
Meanwhile, owners of the neat, brick, mostly one- and two-family homes all but appropriated the right-of-way. In 1959, the Freedmans joined 11 other property-owners in a legal agreement recognizing “the right of each of the other parties to possess and enjoy by right of adverse possession, that part of the said 20-foot strip immediately to the rear of or abutting the lot owned by each of the other parties.”
The New York state attorney general’s office, which maintains repositories of offering plans, has been encouraging development of the online library service, Mr. Tormey said. The office did not respond to a request for comment.
The strip is barely big enough for a model train, much less a real railroad (the tracks at the New York Botanical Garden’s holiday train show are more than twice as long).
This month, after a reporter brought the property to the Long Island Rail Road’s attention, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Aaron Donovan, said it believed it still owned the right-of-way and was considering what to do with it.
“We can’t comment on potential litigation,” he said, adding, “It’s safe to say that we have no plans to reactivate service on the Manhattan Beach Branch.”