HANCOCK, Maine — State transportation and conservation officials knew there might be debate when the agencies teamed up recently to turn 80 miles of unused railroad tracks into a multiuse trail system.
What they didn’t expect was for that debate to carry over into the legal arena.
Dale Henderson, a prominent Maine landowner who owns two pieces of land that the new trail runs through, is challenging the state over ownership of parts of the new Sunrise Trail. About 50 miles of the project recently was opened to hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.
But Henderson isn’t waiting for the courts to decide his fate. He already has taken matters into his own hands.
The landowner recently erected barricades to stop users from traversing his property. In the town of Hancock, Henderson put up a berm on the tracks at one end and a stone wall at the other end. On a smaller piece of land in the Washington County town of Steuben, he built berms on both ends of the 50-acre property where the tracks run through.
Accompanying the barricades are signs that read “This portion of the railroad bed is closed. No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.”
Henderson could not be reached for comment last week, but his attorney, Tim Pease of Bangor, said his client has every right to protect his property, particularly from liability if someone is injured.
“Dale thought it would be prudent to block access to his land,” Pease said last Friday. “Based on our research, we’re confident he owns that former rail bed and therefore has a right to post his property. And, he did so in a very safe manner.”
Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, disagreed.
“In our view, he has defaced public property,” Latti said of the barricades. “We’re going to take the appropriate action through the legal system.”
Henderson already has two active lawsuits against the state, one in Hancock County Superior Court, the other in Washington County. Both challenge the assumption that the state owns a right of way to the former Maine Central Railroad Co. train tracks.
Several months ago, before the multiuse Sunrise Trail had opened, Henderson sought to halt the project unless the state agreed to build a fence around his property. A Superior Court justice denied that request.
The cases that question who owns the land are still pending, but Henderson, who owns thousands of acres in eastern and coastal Maine, has the financial resources to see the matter through.
From Latti’s perspective, though, Henderson’s fight is costing Maine taxpayers.
“The unfortunate thing is that his acts are going to cost [the state] money if we have to remove the barricades,” Latti said. “And, if these matters persist in court, that will also cost money, which we feel should go toward completing the project.”