The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading
  NUMBER 132


© May 20, 2009   

©Discover Live Steam and Rick Henderson (PC Rails).  This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

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Railroads vs. Local Government

How to Get Along With “Little” Brother



Written by Rick Henderson

This is a report based on what has and is happening around the country in our hobby. It is not a guideline of what applies in your particular area but is intended to encourage you to consider researching locally and understanding what works best for you.

In the U.S., there are 3,141 county [or equivalent] governments, which of course means there may be up to 3,141 different approaches to the acceptance of riding scale railroads within the local community. To start with, most county zoning offices have no clue what a riding scale railroad is, other than to compare it to an amusement park train ride and that may be the basis for many problems. As soon as they hear “ride on train”, the image of an amusement ride sticks into their mind and as railroad owners, often we have an uphill battle to educate them that it is simply a private, large-scale railroad hobby, nothing more than a big Lionel train set.

We basically have three different types of railroads, which can range in size from a few hundred feet loop to over 30 real miles of track. These vary from totally private to, semi-open and totally open to the public. Open to the public railroads may be on private or public land and have scheduled open public run days. Semi-private tracks are generally on private land but allow organized public civic groups, such as the Scouts. These are likely a club that has a 501c3 charity status and will allow limited public exposure. A totally private railroad would include tracks that are only for family and friends and perhaps the riding scale railroad community, they are not open to the general public at any time.

Since the hobby needs to grow, or at least replace those members within the hobby that pass on, go inactive or drop out, some degree of public exposure is necessary to survive. This is especially important at private tracks, where there is public exposure; after all, we all started somewhere to get where we are in the hobby today.

The focus here is on primarily private or semi-private railroad problems. Most public ride railroads should already have approval of local zoning, the proper permits and insurance coverage.

Perception of a Hobby Railroad

Your image to your neighbors, community and local government are the most important issue to consider and project. Often, how you first present your railroad fixes the perception of what it is. For the most part, we want others to see it as a Private Hobby Railroad or Big Train Set. That is the first point that should be made very clear during first contact with anyone; neighbors, zoning boards or the guy that just stopped while driving by. Once the thought of amusement ride gets into one’s mind, especially some zoning official, it takes a lot of effort to re-education them. In residentially zoned areas, if they are all accepting of your activity, they will be happy to have you there and even grow. If on the other hand, you grow too large, have frequent visitors or even invite the public, you are likely going to annoy some or all.

It is important that when you get a concern or complaint from a neighbor, you try to work with them to avoid escalating to the point the local authorities are called in.


Some self imposed restrictions that railroad owners have found to be helpful in maintaining a good relationship with their close neighbors include, limit evening running, the frequency and number of visitors and adjusting your schedule if requested by a neighbor that is planning an activity. Battery powered only and no horns, bells or sound systems are also a growing trend. There are even some that do not invite friends to evening gatherings who persistently have to talk too loud.


Living with Zoning

Where the local government comes into the equation is generally in the area of residential zoning. Some will argue that zoning laws just allow bureaucrats more power to deal with what used to be handled under nuisance laws. Zoning laws, especially those that apply to residential areas, are intended to protect property value and the civil servants that administer them have a lot of government backing and little knowledge of our hobby. One thing to keep in mind about zoning laws; if it is not mentioned in the local law as being allowed, it generally can easily be ruled as disallowed. Few zoning laws say anything about riding scale railroads as a hobby. However, looking beyond our desire to have a riding scale railroad on our private property, the local government needs to take into consideration how all of the surrounding community, those living there now and in the future, would be affected by such an activity. There are a lot of other good reasons to have zoning laws, many of which may protect your own property value. It is important to understand that zoning rules may evolve with growth and they may not be hard and fast and forever, especially with changing administrations.

Let’s face it; riding scale railroading is NOT your typical hobby. According to those that have been through it, the best approach to deal with zoning is to ‘ask first’. You don’t have to give details of your plans when just asking about zoning restrictions and allowances, so don’t be afraid to ask. When you are ready to get into the details of planning and building, be prepared to educate them on your plans to build a railroad, stressing it is just a private hobby before you start. Be prepared with enough material and sample photos of what you are planning, including how little, if any, impact it would have on the community. Choose your photos carefully because they have a lot of influence on people unfamiliar with the hobby; a photo of a small train with a couple of people on a single track line presents a more acceptable image than 50 people on a long string of riding cars pulling out of a multi-track yard or station. By the way, in most locations, 501c3 status will not get you around any zoning issues and in fact it could raise concerns when working in a residentially zoned area because 501c3 organizations are intended to serve the public, which implies attracting the public.

Do not be surprised what restrictions may be applied to your railroad. These are some of the actual restrictions from various counties. No track within 50’ of property lines, no open-house or public rides, no fee for riding, including any donations [this is also a restriction of some insurance companies; check with your carrier before accepting any money]. Permits not needed for track but are required for structures. Size limited to 1/3 scale or less. Train use limited in various ways including as defined as "legitimate friends and family only". While permits are not generally required for track, coming out of the ground with a structure is viewed differently. You may be restricted on what structures you may build, especially engine-house or car-barn structures; they may have to be built as something else.


Victim of Success

Most railroads have few, if any, local problems and their local zoning office may not even know they exist. Neighbors, if there are any within sight or earshot of the railroad, are usually accepting of a private track that the owner plays on occasionally, especially if that railroad invites the neighbors to occasionally ride on it. When new neighbors are added to the mix, they are often accepting of an existing railroad, simply because it was there before they were. Where problems often first occur is when the railroad grows either in size or degree of activity. This is categorized as “victim of your own success” and occurs when you simply outgrow your initial local welcome. Most often this happens when a track grows and becomes popular within the hobby or the public. When it is popular, it attracts more visitors to run on the track and not all visitors are as concerned with what the neighbors think as the owner. If you host any event that requires you to bring in porta-potties, you are likely getting too large for a residentially zoned neighborhood and may be considered a non-private activity.  Another problem may occur when you invite the public to ride and even accept or ask for ‘donations’. At this point, the friendly little railroad has become a nuisance within the community and may come to the attention and question by the zoning people through a neighbor complaint.

The number one way to attract unwanted attention is through local or regional media. The “Human Interest Story” in a local paper, television or local magazine, can kill a railroad. Exposure through magazines or websites dedicated directly to the hobby attracts only our own small community of hobbyists and would cause you no unwanted exposure but exposure in local media brings out all those looking for a free ride for their kids. You may want to consider a standard “Private Property” or “Not Open to the Public” signs at any access to your layout just to deal with the passer-by riding around.

We are almost all happy to share our hobby with others active in the hobby and the most common way today is though a website. Our websites are usually just visited by others within the hobby; however, anyone browsing can come across your private railroad website. While you want to hear from others in the hobby, you do not want to also encourage the people looking on the Internet for something to do in their area who find you. Some suggestions were given that you may want to consider adding some of them or even all to your website to be sure all visitors that come across the page have a clear understanding about your railroad.

This is a Privately Owned model railroad
This is not an amusement ride or park
It is never open to the pubic

Building this scale model railroad is a hobby
This website is for sharing information among 1/8th scale Model Railroaders.
This website is not an advertisement


Experience Suggests

In general, as previously mentioned, most feel you should check zoning restrictions and be up-front about what you are doing or have done. Ignoring government agencies and hoping for the best rarely works out well. Obviously the best way to avoid most zoning and neighbor issues is to move to the country on a large acreage; however, this is not a practical solution for everyone. Promote your railroad as a model or private hobby. And really consider your neighbors before your railroad.

I would also like to thank the many people who took time to respond and contribute once they heard I was doing the research; many of you saw references to your own situations. Many others may find solutions to their own concerns.


Written by Rick Henderson

Be sure to visit Rick Henderson's web site PC Rails


©Discover Live Steam and Rick Henderson (PC Rails). This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed without written permission.

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