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Council Bluffs man fights to rebuild home after fire

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (WOWT) – A senior citizen is ready to rebuild after a fire destroyed the home where he lived for decades but his path forward is being blocked by a railroad.

A raging fire that destroyed his home left Jim Steinbach, 76, with a big hole on his property and in his heart.

“I want to be home. I want to stay here. It’s my life,” said Steinbach.

He’s ready to live in a new manufactured home ordered and paid for but the city of Council Bluffs won’t let it be placed on Jim’s property until the railroad makes a delivery.

“All we want from UP is on letterhead my uncle, my cousin and her daughter will be able to drive in and out and will not be blocked. That’s all the city wants,” said niece Sheila Keyser.

But so far UP isn’t on board.

“My family can’t go home and there is nothing they can do,” said Keyser.

The only way into Jim’s property is a rocky road next to the tracks on Union Pacific right of way and he says for 34 years nobody from the railroad told him to stop using it.

“We done it all these years and we didn’t hurt nothing so now why are they doing it to me,” said Steinbach.

Union Pacific won’t send that letter to the city. A UP email says the railroad doesn’t have any record of an easement, lease, or agreement that grants access to Jim’s property along the railroad right of way.

Union Pacific suggests Jim works out a deal with his neighbor to the south who needs a sewer. Let them run a line through his property in exchange for some of theirs where he can build a driveway. But Jim says this new fence clearly indicates that the neighbor is not willing to negotiate.

His niece believes Jim shouldn’t have to move over because UP let him travel the road for 34 years. Creighton Property Law Professor Craig Dallon tracked the Iowa law on an easement by prescription.

“Use alone will not establish claim of right. So just use, if you are just using it without more that will not establish a claim of right,” said Dallon.

While family members believe Jim has earned an easement right to stay on the road, they acknowledge never telling that to Union Pacific.

“They have to have been on notice for 10 years that you have claimed this right,” said Dallon.

But Sheila Keyser says Union Pacific workers watched her uncle use the road many times for three decades. That she says should be noticed enough.

“I don’t understand why Union Pacific won’t just put on paper that they’re not going to block the access points for my family,” said Keyser.

That’s what they need for Jim’s new home to get back on track.

Lovejoy Modular Homes says they are ready to place a home on his property once a permit is issued. But an assistant Council Bluffs city attorney says the city can’t grant a building permit on a parcel of land that doesn’t have access.

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