Belfast officials determined to build trail, prepare to meet with affected landowners

Posted Feb. 07, 2012, at 10:28 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — City officials are hoping that the best way to quell concerns about a proposed rail trail along the Passagassawakeag River is to meet with the project’s most affected landowners and answer questions about what it might mean to their private property rights.

“There is no Oz behind the curtain,” City Councilor Eric Sanders said at Tuesday night’s regular council meeting. “There is no hidden agenda. We want to build a trail.”

In 2010, the council voted to purchase the right-of-way along approximately 3 miles of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor from the Unity Foundation for $200,000 with the intention of creating a pedestrian-friendly trail alongside the tracks.

But because there’s a dispute in the legal community over whether a rail corridor is the same as a trail, City Manager Joe Slocum told the council Tuesday night, the city has been trying to work with the landowners involved. The council decided last fall to offer affected property owners payment in exchange for an easement, but not every landowner has decided to take the offer, he said.

Slocum invited all affected landowners to a meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15, at City Hall.

In a letter sent to those landowners on Jan. 13, he wrote that if they don’t sign the easements and releases by March 15, the City Council is prepared to take legal action to secure indisputable title to the easements.

“Should that occur, you would still be paid the same amount identified by the independent appraiser,” Slocum wrote in the letter.

Altogether, the appraiser figured that incremental property losses for three miles of a 90-foot-wide railroad easement is about $40,000, he said.

Slocum also wanted to clarify during the council meeting that the nonprofit Coastal Mountains Land Trust, which has committed to paying half the cost of the right-of-way, or $100,000, can’t do so until it receives assurance that the rail trail can be legally established and permanent.

“The Land Trust is not involved in the City’s process to obtain releases from the abutters,” Scott Dickerson, executive director of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, wrote in a letter to Slocum at the end of January.

Slocum told councilors that some landowners have wondered if the trail will reduce their property value, while others ask if it will increase the value.

“It’s a matter of perspective,” he said.

City Councilor Mike Hurley said that he understands there are people who are “just determined that we don’t have the right to build this trail.”

But he disagrees with them.

“We bought this corridor. We’re determined to do this,” he said.

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