May 27, 2018
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Judge says state retains rights to former rail bed

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A judge has ruled against a landowner in Hancock and Steuben who challenged the state’s claim of ownership of an old rail bed it is converting into a trail for hikers and off-road vehicles.

Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter earlier this month granted a motion for partial summary judgment sought by the state Department of Transportation.

Logger Dale Henderson, who lives in Orrington, has filed suit against DOT, arguing that the state lost its interest to the rail bed in 1985, when Maine Central Railroad Co. ceased operations, and that he owns the sections of the old corridor where it crosses his land.

In his decision, Hunter declares that the state owns the rail corridor outright and that it has the right to work in the corridor in order to make improvements and to convert the former rail bed into use as a trail. The state’s claim of ownership of the rail bed is not dependent on the corridor being used for rail services, the judge said in his decision.

“We’re pleased Justice Hunter decided in our favor in terms of who has title to the rail line,” DOT spokesman Mark Latti said Wednesday.

Henderson’s attorney, Tim Pease of Bangor, was on vacation Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

Henderson, contacted Wednesday by phone, said he plans to appeal the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. He said that he bought the land, 6,800 acres in all, for himself and his family to use and that he does not want people to have access to it via the old rail bed.

“I don’t want the general public on my land any more than you want them at your house tonight,” Henderson said. “The battle is far from over.”

Henderson said his deeds to the properties indicate that ownership of the rail corridor reverted to the abutting property owners, himself included, when the railroad stopped operating 24 years ago.

He said he owns the rail where the corridor crosses his land, which the state intends to sell to help finance the trail’s creation. He also said that although he is not opposed to routing the trail away from his property, he does not believe the trail will help generate tourism revenue in Hancock and Washington counties.

“I spent millions of dollars on [my land], and I didn’t do it for Joe Schmo,” he said. “It’s far from the end of the world. We’re just getting started.”

The ruling did not address one of Henderson’s court claims, however. In his lawsuit against DOT, Henderson sought a declaration about whether the state might be obliged to erect a fence on either side of the rail corridor where it passes through his property in Hancock and Steuben. Hunter said in his ruling that he did not touch on this issue because it was not addressed in the state’s request for a summary judgment.

Latti said Wednesday that he did not know how the fence issue would be addressed.

“That is one remaining issue that the court has to decide,” he said.

The state has been renovating the old rail line between Hancock and Pembroke into the Sunrise Trail, a multiuse trail that will be open to all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, cross-country skiers, bikers and hikers. The state has been working on the rail bed since the snow melted this spring to remove the old rails and crossties, repair bridges and trestles and rehabilitate the old rail bed. Parts of the old rail bed were open for public use last winter.

Latti said Wednesday that the state began work on the trail at the eastern end and has not yet reached the areas in dispute near the western end. Henderson had erected barricades where the rail corridor crossed his property to prevent the state or anyone else from accessing his land.

Charles Corliss, recreational trail coordinator for the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, said Tuesday the state hopes to open one or more sections of the trail in central and eastern Washington County to the public by the end of next week.


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