Wright’s world: Rails to trails, property to Potter

Danaya Wright, Clarence J. TeSelle Professor of Law, is thinking of biking with her partner and two young children on a trail converted from an old railroad bed. The Thanksgiving ride would take them through some of the most scenic areas of Georgia and Alabama.

In the meantime, she has numerous projects to juggle. Like analyzing 1,100 miles of abandoned railroad corridors through Ohio and tracing the history of the property conversions and their corresponding legal rights. In other words, she is researching the legal foundation of rails to trails, an example of which her family would peddle during their bicycle journey. With a team of law students, Wright reviewed about 50 boxes filled with deeds assembled by railroad companies long since disbanded. She now keeps the remnants of this monumental task in her home.

“In my office, it is all of my books. In my partner’s office, I took over, and it is nothing but railroad deeds and maps,” Wright said.

These are tangible artifacts of why UF Law Dean Robert Jerry calls Wright “the most prominent academic on the rails-to-trails issue in the United States.”

The conversion of old railroad tracks to walking or bike trails caught Wright’s attention as an avid bike rider and property scholar.

“I looked at this issue, and I thought, ‘That totally goes against everything I know as a property professor,’” she said. “All of the property rules I teach are being upended by courts not following standard property rules about what rights the railroads received in the 19th century.”

Landowners of former rail corridors argued that, but for federal legislation allowing rail corridors to be converted to trails, the land underlying these corridors would revert to them. So the landowners argue that use of these railroad corridors as trails is a government “taking.” However, arguments favoring conversion of the rail corridors to trail use note that the rights to the land granted to the railroad came by way of eminent domain or government grant and are infused with a public trust.

Wright deploys her knowledge of 19th century railroad history, industrial development and property law to “unearth the property rights that were originally given to the railroad in the 19th century when these corridors were first constructed,” she said. “Once we know what rights they got, we can determine what can be done today.”

Meanwhile, a trusts-and-estates casebook authored by Wright is set to be published in June. She fell into the task of writing the book thanks to her UF Law courses.

“I agreed to teach trusts and estates when I first came to UF Law,” she said. “I taught it again and again, and I just became so dissatisfied with the books that I had to write my own.”

When she is not busy researching and writing about topics that strike her fancy, such as Harry Potter and the law, and the case in which the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley lost custody of his children, Wright teaches any one of seven courses, spanning property law to English legal history.

“She is an enthusiastic professor who truly seems to care about her students,” said Christy Lopez (3L), a former student in Wright’s future interests course.

This enthusiasm for the subjects Wright teaches is also apparent through her nontraditional education path. Wright obtained five degrees before joining the UF Law faculty, including bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature, and a doctorate in political science.

It was at Cornell University School of Law that she decided to become a law professor. Yet upon graduation, Wright pursued a doctorate in political science. This degree, according to Wright, allowed her to continue studying law beyond a practice-orientated legal education.

In 1998, Wright accepted a position at UF Law. And despite not having practiced law, her trusts-and-estates casebook is heavily practice-oriented.

As a professor, Wright continues to explore her many academic interests. Last year, she presented a lecture on the family and the state in the Harry Potter series while dressed in a witch’s garb; it is a topic that spoke to her family law and legal history background.

“Harry Potter made sense because it is English; it is literature; it has this taste of being historical, but there is a lot of law in it,” she said.

Wright has lived in many states while studying or teaching, but she seems to have finally set up shop in Gainesville with 20 acres of land. She raises sheep on 10 of those acres.

Reflecting on her new role as “sheep farmer,” she noted, “We will have 20 or so in the next month.” It’s a challenge, among so many others, that Wright appears happy to accept.