BELFAST, Maine — Bird-watchers, nature lovers and exercise enthusiasts seemed to come out in force Monday night at City Hall during a public meeting held to discuss the city’s possible purchase of three miles of railroad line.
Even those whose property abuts the line seemed mostly to have procedural questions about — rather than major opposition to — the process of converting a little-used track to a rail-trail project.
“I think it would be a wonderful thing for the city,” resident Liza Wheeler said. “I think it would be a great place for kids to learn how to bike and for people to push their strollers. People would have healthier hearts because of it.”
In order to purchase the railroad track right-of-way from its owners, the Unity Foundation, Belfast would enter into a three-way partnership with the Coastal Mountain Land Trust and the Brooks Preservation Society, which would run the trains. City Manager Joseph Slocum said he has secured an option to purchase the railroad corridor for $200,000 — a sum which must be approved by the City Council.
The Coastal Mountains Land Trust would pay $100,000 of the purchase price, executive director Scott Dickerson told the crowd at the public meeting.
But even before he made that commitment, most people were strongly in favor of the rails and trails plan, which ultimately would stretch from the pedestrian footbridge to the Waldo town line. The trail would follow the curves of the Passagassawakeag River.
“I am thrilled at this proposal,” said resident Kathy DeSilvey. “The whole idea that I can walk out of the city and keep going and have all the birds around me — I’m really excited about this.”
The most concern about the project was voiced by resident Fran Riley.
“I’m very opposed to our government putting any kind of money like this towards the development,” she said. “I think it’s financially irresponsible. It’s not that I’m opposed to the project. I just think that the funds for this should be raised privately.”
Riley also wondered whether the city would be liable if someone were injured or killed while using the trail. Slocum told her that Maine municipalities have “extreme immunity” to such liability concerns, so Belfast wouldn’t be increasing its risk.
Some abutters wondered whether the trail would be used exclusively by walkers, runners and bikers and not by motorized vehicles. Councilors assured them that it would not be used by vehicles.
Other abutters wondered if the tracks would be torn up, and they were told the answer was no.
Abutter Joe Stearns said that while he was in favor of the process, he wanted to know where the trail would be placed, and said that he expected retaining walls to be put in to prevent erosion.
Ida Hall, another abutter, said after the meeting that she still had some unanswered questions.
“Who is going to maintain this?” she asked. “Just getting it there is one thing, but what if they got washouts? Who’s going to be responsible?”
Though some questions were raised that had no immediate answers, Councilor Eric Sanders said that he was pleased with the discussion.
“We wanted to know what the public thought,” he said. “It’s not just for economic development, and it’s not just for people coming from out-of-town. If we can tie these nature preserves and the downtown together — who has that? Nobody. It would be astonishing.”
But Mayor Walter Ash said he has a couple of reservations about the purchase, which councilors must vote on soon. The city has until July 2 to close on the property.
“The financing part is what bothers me,” Ash said after the meeting. “We don’t really know what the project will cost. It’s probably more than we think.”