Active: Federal lawsuit filed to rein in land grabs via easements

Dr. Gregory Ringenberg’s search for the perfect place to build a family retreat ended in 2019 with his purchase of 141 acres in rural Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains and within the Cherokee National Forest (pictured above). The big selling point for the pharmaceutical consultant was the wooded property’s privacy, and he soon selected a secluded area among large trees as the site for the planned home.

Little did he know his purchase would come with a big legal problem. The U.S. Forest Service, which owns 15 acres adjacent to his, claimed it owned a strip of his land for a public road to nowhere, which nobody knew about.

The discovery of this alleged easement arose while Dr. Ringenberg was taking the necessary steps to ensure his own planned road to access the new home wouldn’t encroach on the agency’s property. A title check for any encumbrances—claims, liens, unpaid taxes, and the like—came up clean. A land survey, however, turned up a stray deed belonging to the Forest Service and alleging that the agency owns a public access easement on Dr. Ringenberg’s land.

Further digging revealed that at one time the Forest Service land and Dr. Ringenberg’s were a single plot. The then-owners split the parcel in 1998, keeping 15 acres for themselves and selling the larger parcel to Dr. Ringenberg’s eventual predecessor. Then in 2001, the original owners negotiated a land swap with the Forest Service and gave the agency their 15-acre parcel in exchange for land elsewhere.

A public road would be disastrous for Dr. Ringenberg’s homebuilding plans. The alleged easement is near the area he chose for the big family retreat. The spot is secluded and quiet. His family wouldn’t have to worry about road traffic, foot traffic, noise, or trespassers, much less liability for accidents or injuries to wayward hunters or hikers.

The easement was never properly recorded. The Forest Service only filed the easement deed with itself, not on the purportedly affected property’s title, as all easements should be recorded.

Regardless of how it was recorded, however, the easement itself is invalid. The easement deal occurred in 2001, two years after the original owners sold what would become the Ringenberg property to someone else. It’s a simple fact that you can’t give what you don’t have.

Even if the easement were proven invalid, the Forest Service has a fallback tactic of dusting off old maps and pointing to purported old wagon trails or footpaths to justify taking private property through easements on a theory of public “prescriptive” easements. Yet this ignores the Constitution’s Takings Clause, which forbids the government from acquiring any property, by whatever means, without paying just compensation.

Forest Service bureaucrats are so unreasonably zealous in their desire to increase public access to national forests that even if they could establish ownership of this easement along Dr. Ringenberg’s property, it would literally be a road to nowhere. Flanked by private property at either end, the alleged easement does not connect with any public accessways. The agency is fighting for the sake of taking more private property.

Dr. Ringenberg has the right to build his family retreat on his land without the threat of public intrusion. Represented by Pacific Legal Foundation at no charge, he filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Forest Service’s invalid easement claim to restore his own property rights and to curb the agency’s continued unlawful manipulations to take property without paying for it.

What’s At Stake?

  • The Forest Service is grasping at whatever straws it can find to take private property through easements, in violation of the basic principle that the government cannot take private property without the owner’s consent unless it pays just compensation.

Case Timeline

December 28, 2023
Amended Complaint
United States District Court Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville