BANGOR, Maine — Landowner Dale Henderson has won a preliminary battle with the state in a dispute involving a stretch of former railroad bed that runs through his property in Hancock and Washington counties.
A judge in Hancock County Superior Court ruled last week that Henderson can keep — at least temporarily — a set of barricades he erected to hinder people from traversing his land.
“We won the first leg, but we expect to lose some battles before we’re done,” Henderson said.
Late last year, the Maine Departments of Transportation and Conservation opened up a lengthy stretch of the multiuse Sunrise Trail, which runs from Calais to Brewer along the old Maine Central Railroad line. So far, the trail has been a hit, particularly with snowmobilers, according to Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation.
Henderson, who owns large tracts of affected land in the town of Hancock in Hancock County and Steuben in Washington County, is not as happy. He said he has tried repeatedly to work with the state to keep users off what he considers his property. Last month, the landowner took matters into his own hands by creating rock barriers and putting up no-trespassing signs at all the entrances to his property.
The state promptly filed a suit in Hancock County Superior Court that claimed Henderson himself was trespassing by erecting the barricades on the tracks, which it considers state-owned property. Justice E. Allen Hunter, in a four-page written decision, did not side with the state.
“The court is not persuaded that a circumstance of sufficient urgency exists at this time such that it should consider issuing an injunction,” Hunter wrote.
The justice also indicated in his decision that the pending case between Henderson and the state over who has ownership rights to the rail bed will move forward without delay.
Latti said he’s not concerned with the decision about the barricades and was encouraged that the matter will be settled soon.
“We certainly don’t see this as a setback,” Latti said.
Henderson has been fighting the state for years over the Sunrise Trail project. First, he wanted the state to divert the trail around his land. The state declined.
Next, the Orrington man filed a temporary restraining order to halt the project, which was denied.
He then asked the state to construct a fence, at its expense, along the 4½-mile stretch of old rail bed through his land. That request was denied as well.
Finally, Henderson and his attorney, Tim Pease of Bangor, are challenging in court whether the state even has ownership rights to the railroad land. The lawsuit over ownership rights is expected to be heard sometime next month.
“This is not the end, but it’s clear to me that the court is taking this seriously,” Pease said.
Henderson said he’s surprised that no other affected landowners have come forward to challenge the state.
“They have not proved ownership,” he said. “Right now, I’m the only one swinging the stick.”
Latti offered his explanation.
“I think the reason you’re not seeing [more complaints] is because there is a lot of widespread public support for this project,” the DOT spokesman said.