BELFAST, Maine — After more than a year without much activity on the city’s proposed rails and trails project, city councilors decided at Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting to get back on track with the pedestrian-friendly endeavor.
Last June, the council voted to purchase the three-mile railroad easement that runs along the Passagassawakeag River from the waterfront to the Waldo town line with the intention of one day creating a permanent public trail. However, City Manager Joe Slocum explained Wednesday that at least one of the abutting landowners is concerned that there is a national dispute regarding easements for rails and trails. The disagreement, essentially, is whether an easement for railroad activities would encompass the use of a trail, too, he said. This uncertainty could leave the door open for legal disputes in the future.
“Belfast doesn’t want to deal with an up-in-the-air thing,” Slocum said.
Toward the goal of clarifying the city’s legal liabilities, a real estate appraiser recently looked at the property to determine how Belfast could fairly compensate property owners for a trail easement. The appraiser figured that incremental property losses for three miles of a 90-foot-wide railroad easement is about $40,000, Slocum said.
Councilors voted Tuesday to give the city manager permission to meet with the 20 property owners and negotiate with them for release deeds for the changed property use. The city would offer to pay the owners between a few hundred and $3,000, depending on the size of the property.
“I think it’s really wise,” Councilor Roger Lee said Wednesday. “$40,000 seems in a way generous — but in the big picture, a pretty small cost for acquiring the rights without any question. I think we’re going to get this resolved.”
Officials did not speculate as to the cost of building a 12-foot-wide trail along the railway corridor, saying that it seemed foolish to spend any money on a design plan until there is a clear legal pathway toward its construction. But ultimately, such a trail would be greatly beneficial for the community, they said.
“I think the trail will be a wonderful resource,” Lee said. “I think it’s going to be another treasure in the city.”
Slocum agreed, calling it a benefit that would endure for centuries.
“Citizens of Belfast will be able to walk down their Main Street, walk down to the storied harbor, and walk right into nature,” he said. “They’d see woods and waterways and bald eagles and seals. That will be a huge benefit to the people who live here.”
In other business, city councilors voted to adopt a tax rate of $18.10 per thousand dollars of property value for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. The move keeps taxes flat for the third year in a row. Taxes had decreased in the two years before that.
“We are down to the finest point of our fingernails,” Slocum said of the municipal budget. “We’re right down to the cuticle.”
He said it is unlikely that the tax-cutting and tax-maintaining trend can last.
“In the future, I anticipate we’re going to see either cuts in services or moderate increases in taxes,” he said.
According to Lee, most city councilors are fiscal conservatives.
“We care about keeping taxes down. We’ve been very successful at that,” he said. “I really do think we’ve got a city that’s very well run, without any waste.”
Also, city councilors accepted a bid for a large airport improvement project. Belfast received a $500,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to expand the Belfast Municipal Airport’s apron, which would provide more parking space for small and large “itinerant aircraft” that don’t have hangars, according to Belfast Development Director Thomas Kittredge.
The federal government will pay 95 percent of the construction cost, with the city and the Maine Department of Transportation kicking in 2.5 percent each.
The project’s lowest bidder was George C. Hall & Sons of Rockland, which will charge the city about $370,000 to complete the work.
“Our goal is to get this thing started as soon as possible,” Kittredge said. “It’s going to increase safety at the airport through reducing congestion, and will hopefully bring more traffic to the airport, which will encourage economic development.”