LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Former western Kentucky landowners and their families are not entitled to compensation for property taken by the U.S. government to build a military camp at the start of World War II, a federal court said in 2-1 ruling Wednesday, ending a 15-year legal battle in the case.
Landowners and their families claim the government promised to sell back farmland taken for Camp Breckinridge near Henderson, Ky., after the war in the 1940s, but later sold it and mineral rights without paying them. The federal government asked the court to deny the claim, saying the time to seek compensation had long passed.
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims said more than 1,000 landowners and their families cannot make a legal case that they deserve to be paid back for thousands of acres the Army seized.
With the legal options all but shut off, attorneys say the other option is to appeal to Congress, which sent the landowners' claims to the court in 1994 to determine if any compensation was due.
"We believe the intent of Congress was to address the claims on their merits," said attorney Steve Pitt. "We certainly will be bringing this before our Congressional delegation."
Wednesday's ruling dismisses a recommendation by another judge on the court that the former landowners receive at least $32 million.
Judges Lawrence S. Margolis and Loren A. Smith wrote a 20-page decision that "any award to the Claimants would constitute a gratuity" and recommended Congress be advised that they should receive nothing.
"Hundreds of tracts of land were purchased by the Government, and only a handful of landowners testified that they were personally promised the right to repurchase their land after World War II ended," the judges wrote. "Furthermore, none of the alleged repurchase promises were in writing."
The federal government paid about $3.1 million for more than 35,000 acres of farmland in three western Kentucky counties to build Camp Breckinridge between 1942 and 1944. The camp housed soldiers, including future baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson and future U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, and German prisoners of war.
Judge Charles Lettow dissented in a 41-page opinion, saying he would recommend at least a $22 million award to any landowner or heir who did not pursue a legal claim at the time the property was taken.
"The former landowners assiduously pursued their claims through petitions to executive departmental officials, litigation and petitions to Congress," Lettow wrote.
Attorney Nancie Marzulla of Washington, D.C., said the majority's opinion doesn't consider how unfairly the landowners and their families were treated by the government.
"We got this cold-blooded strict legal analysis that absolutely ignores the plight of these people," Marzulla told The Associated Press. "Just because time has passed doesn't mean it's too late to do the right thing."
A message left with the press office of the U.S. Department of Justice was not immediately returned.
The federal government declared Camp Breckinridge land surplus in 1962 and sold off the mineral rights and surface land, over the objections of the former landowners.
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