BELFAST, Maine — The city is a big step closer to getting its pedestrian-friendly “rails and trails” project up and running.
At Tuesday night’s special City Council meeting, councilors voted 4-1 to purchase the right-of-way along approximately 3 miles of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor. Lewis Baker cast the sole dissenting vote.
The decision means that the city has committed to paying $200,000 to the Unity Foundation, owner of the rail corridor. Belfast has an agreement with the Coastal Mountains Land Trust that the nonprofit conservancy will pay half of that cost.
“I thought it was incredible, terrific,” Councilor Mike Hurley said Wednesday of the move. “I’ve been working on it for five or six years, so I’ve been very happy.”
After purchasing the right-of-way, the city intends to build a hiking and biking path that runs along the railway tracks that ultimately will extend from downtown Belfast to the Waldo town line. Passenger trains still will use the tracks.
Councilors said at a recent meeting that in order to make the project happen, Belfast will be in a three-way partnership with the land trust and the Brooks Preservation Society, the nonprofit agency that runs excursion trains on sections of the rail corridor.
Scott Dickerson, executive director of the land trust, said that he hopes a “first phase” of the trail will be ready in the next couple of years. That phase would stretch for 7/10 of a mile from the edge of the Penobscot McCrum property to the site of the former bridge off City Point Road. A crucial portion of the tracks, running be-tween the Route 1 bridge and the pedestrian footbridge, is owned by potato processor Jay McCrum.
McCrum has not been officially asked if his property may be used for the project.
“I look forward eagerly to working with the city and the rail preservation groups to help create what we all think will be a true asset with the community,” Dickerson said. “There’s an awful lot of exploratory work to be done. It’s going to take a long while to bring this project to fruition — but the purchase was a tremendous step forward.”
Although one man whose property the tracks cross expressed at a mid-June council meeting his strong dislike of the city purchasing the right-of-way and constructing a trail alongside the tracks, other abutters who came to a public hearing on the matter last week seemed generally to be in favor of the plan.
“Everybody’s very excited about it,” Hurley said. “The people who might be worried about it are the abutters. My goal, and I hope the city’s goal, is that they have a good experience — that it’s good for them and their property.”
Baker said that he was opposed to the purchase because he feels there are “way too many” unanswered questions about the project.
“I don’t oppose the walkway,” he said. “I felt the major stumbling block was the McCrum property. If the railroad or trail can’t cross the property, that trail won’t work.”
Dickerson said that in case the city and Penobscot McCrum aren’t able to work out an agreement, there are alternatives — including having a pedestrian trail that goes around the Penobscot McCrum property or using the state right-of-way for the Route 1 bridge.
“It’s nice to know there are alternatives, but we very much hope we can work cooperatively with the owners of Penobscot McCrum to gain a walking path access across this property,” he said. “It’s not a hypothetical now.”
Local railroad enthusiasts also are excited about the council’s decision, including Russ Barber of Belfast, who is a member of the Brooks Preservation Society. He said the society’s role in the three-way partnership is to maintain the traditional railroad right-of-way that is on the deeds of the abutting properties.
“As long as the city is maintaining a train on it, the right-of-way doesn’t revert back to the landowners,” he said. “Coastal Mountains and the city have put up the money. And because we are here running the trains, it makes the whole thing honest.”