STEUBEN, Maine — If the fight between prominent Down East landowner Dale Henderson and the state is a boxing match, Henderson has claimed victory in the latest round.
A judge in Washington County Superior Court ruled earlier this month that Henderson, not the state, owns the more than 1,000 feet of railbed that runs through his 50-acre property in Steuben.
The next step is to determine whether the state has a valid right of way or easement to the dormant railroad. Both sides have until June 30 to submit additional information to the judge, but neither Henderson nor the state is backing down.
At stake is the public’s right to use the recently rehabilitated Sunrise Trail that runs from Calais to Brewer along the old Maine Central Railroad line, which is now open for a variety of recreational uses.
“I’ve tried to work with the state for years on a compromise,” Henderson said late last week from the office of his Bangor attorney, Tim Pease. “I’m disgusted by their arrogance in not wanting to work with me.”
Toni Kemmerle, chief counsel for the Maine Department of Transportation, said she was confident the judge would rule that the state does have an easement.
“We would prefer not to battle over this, but it’s such an important issue,” she said.
More than a year ago, before the multiuse Sunrise Trail 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.
Henderson then erected barricades last year to stop users from traversing his property. In the town of Hancock, where Henderson owns several thousand acres, the landowner 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 state: “This portion of the railroad bed is closed. No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.”
Since then, the matter has been in court, both in Washington County in regard to his Steuben property and in Hancock County over his land in Hancock.
The recent decision by Justice E. Allen Hunter concluded that Henderson owns the land because his deed stipulates that the property be used for railroad purposes only. Henderson said it is clear the railroad has long been abandoned in that part of the state and is not coming back.
“There has not been an abandonment,” she said. “If anything, the trail rehabilitation project has made it easier for rails to return.”
Henderson stressed that he does not have a problem with the Sunrise Trail, but he said the state never worked with landowners throughout the process.
“It’s about preserving landowners’ rights and not letting the state do whatever it wants,” he said.