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Mobtown Beat

Runaway Trainman

Would-be Cockeysville railroader wins appeals and keeps on dreaming 

John Ellsberry
James Riffin's property in Cockeysville, as seen in 2007; he still hopes to use it as a railroading facility.

By Van Smith | Posted 2/3/2010

James Riffin, who for years has been mounting a one-man campaign to resume freight-train service on the Cockeysville-to-Baltimore light-rail tracks ("Train Wreck," Feature, Oct. 10, 2007), won two significant victories in recent weeks. On Jan. 5, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in Riffin's favor, saying a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge erred procedurally last year in deeming Riffin a frivolous litigant barred from filing any more lawsuits. And on Jan. 22, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Surface Transportation Board (STB)--the federal administrative-law body that regulates the rail industry--erred last year by declaring that Riffin's Cockeysville property is not a railroading facility subject to the STB's sole jurisdiction.

Not bad for a guy who isn't a lawyer and doesn't use one--except in bankruptcy proceedings, for which he recently hired one. In between the two appellate-court victories, on Jan. 20, Riffin filed for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy.

Many other legal and financial hurdles stand in the way of Riffin's freight-rail dreams, but he remains indefatigably confident that his legal footing and financial wherewithal are sound in the long run. "If everything that needs to happen happens," Riffin says between occasional bites of lunch at Cockeysville's Great Fortune Buffet on Jan. 28, "it'll be another three or four years before we're up and running."

In the hours before sitting down for lunch, Riffin had spun intricate, citation-heavy legal arguments before Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge John Grason Turnbull II, trying to overcome matter-of-fact pleadings by lawyers with the Baltimore County Office of Law that Riffin is, and has long been, a waste of the court's time. The hearing was prompted by Riffin's victory in the state Court of Special Appeals, which decided that Turnbull's prior approach to barring Riffin from any further litigation--by simply issuing an order, without providing Riffin with an opportunity to mount a defense--was illegal.

Since 2004, recounted assistant Baltimore County attorney Adam Rosenblatt during the Jan. 28 hearing, Riffin has repeatedly contended in lawsuits and legal filings that his Cockeysville property is exempt from state and local laws because, as a railroad facility, it answers only to the STB's authority. Riffin's activities at the site--next to Beaver Dam Run just downstream of York Road, where he has allegedly flouted environmental laws by grading earth without a permit in order to protect his historic warehouse from floods and to prepare for the day when he starts railroading--have prompted repeated attempts to bring him to heel, Rosenblatt explained. He contended that Riffin's claims to fall under exclusive federal purview have burdened the county's lawyers with seemingly endless hours spent preparing legal papers to rebut Riffin's same old song-and-dance.

Before the hearing began, Rosenblatt used a hand truck to wheel into the courtroom three boxes marked riffin. Each was filled with sets of copies of all the filings Riffin has made in years of fighting this point with Baltimore County authorities. The boxes were entered as an exhibit for the proceeding: one box for the court, one for Riffin, and one for the county.

In all, Rosenblatt said, "there have been 39 cases in administrative, state, and federal courts that the county has been involved with due to Mr. Riffin's filings." Rosenblatt's boss, Baltimore County Attorney John Beverungen, summed up the government's position by saying, "This court doesn't have time for Mr. Riffin, to put it bluntly."

In defending himself, Riffin said his federal-preemption argument is a "colorable claim"--a legal standard that means it stands a chance of being found genuine and valid, and thus is not frivolous. His main exhibit in driving home this point was the Jan. 22 ruling from the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling reversed the STB's denial of Riffin's federal-preemption petition regarding his Cockeysville property.

"We conclude the Board's order is arbitrary and capricious," Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote in the D.C. Circuit's opinion, "because it does not adequately explain why Riffin's activities at the Cockeysville property do not fall under the Board's jurisdiction." The judges remanded the case back to the STB for further proceedings, which have not yet been scheduled.

Turnbull, at the end of the Jan. 28 hearing on whether or not Riffin is a frivolous litigant, said he would keep the matter "under advisement" and would issue a written opinion "very promptly." His stern demeanor toward Riffin during the hearing--he overruled every one of Riffin's objections--gives the impression he plans to rule in favor of the county. "I got a feeling he's going to find me a frivolous litigant," Riffin said after the hearing. "I don't care," he adds, "I'll appeal."

In the meantime, Riffin's long-running chess match with Big Rail and the Maryland Transportation Authority (MTA) over his hopes to run freight on the Cockeysville-to-Baltimore light-rail tracks continues. In December, Norfolk Southern petitioned the STB to abandon its freight-service rights on that stretch of tracks--rights which haven't been exercised since freight service ended in 2005--with MTA's full support. But on Jan. 5, Riffin intervened with an offer to take over the rights. The extent of his proposal has been kept under wraps in the STB proceeding, at Riffin's request. But he's willing to elaborate for City Paper.

"Baltimore County has a solid-waste transfer station in Cockeysville," he explains. "And up in Harford County, Aberdeen Proving Grounds' Edgewood Area [formerly the Edgewood Arsenal] is the site for a much-expanded trash-to-energy incinerator plan," he continued. "They need 1,500 tons of garbage shipped there each day to generate steam, and that's about 27,000 truckloads per year. There is a rail bed within 1,000 feet of where they want to build the incinerator. I want to ship Baltimore County's trash there from Cockeysville, using rail cars instead of trucks. It has the potential to be outrageously profitable, while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from truck exhaust--trucks use a lot more fuel than trains--and saving money on highway-maintenance costs for the public."

Riffin admits that hisA preliminary and ambitious plan, however sensible it sounds,A remains a far-away dream. But if he keeps on winning the legal arguments--and if he can emerge from bankruptcy with the deed to his Cockeysville property, which he says is integral to his trash-shipping scenario--it may just happen someday. There appears to be little chance, at any rate, that he'll ever stop trying.

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