Belfast tries to woo landowners instead of using eminent domain to build rail trail

Posted Feb. 16, 2012, at 7:32 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Landowners who will be affected by the city’s proposed rail trail along the Passagassawakeag River asked questions and spoke their minds Wednesday night during a meeting held at Belfast City Hall.

The question-and-answer session was part of city officials’ continued efforts to persuade the people who own property along the three miles of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor to go along with Belfast’s plan to build a trail there.

In 2010, the city purchased the right-of-way along the railroad tracks, but there is a national dispute over whether a rail corridor is the same as a trail, City Manager Joe Slocum has said. Last fall, the city offered property owners a small monetary payment in exchange for an easement. So far, about half of the affected 18 landowners have signed the easements that give the city an unqualified right to build the trail along a 100-foot-wide rail corridor, he said.

If some will not sign, the city is prepared to use eminent domain to seize the easements, he said.

“We’re hoping hard not to be in that situation,” Slocum said Thursday morning. “We’re trying to be a good neighbor.”

One landowner, Tara Demere, said that she is excited about the city’s plan to add a greenway along the rail corridor, as other communities in the country have done.

“Even though I’m going to lose some privacy because people will be traveling here, it’s worth it,” she said Thursday.

Demere said that she was impressed by the city council, which has a broad vision for the corridor.

“Even if they don’t know exactly what it will look like,” she said.

According to Slocum, no one involved in the process has a lot of firm answers. One question that came up at the meeting included whether or not the trail will be fenced off from adjacent properties or from the railroad tracks, which are used occasionally by an excursion train. Another was how will the trail be laid out.

“Everybody’s frustrated, even the council, that we don’t know that,” he said.

Demere said that the land is beautiful, and home to many birds and animals even though it’s relatively close to the center of town.

“I think it will be amazing for folks to have a way to walk or bike into town,” she said.

Slocum said he encouraged meeting attendees who raised concerns over the long-term future of the trail to have some faith in the city, which purchased the rail right-of-way only after a private entity began looking to buy it.

“There’s public accountability,” he said. “We’re hoping that because it’s a municipal ownership, people will realize they can come forward to their elected officials.”

He said that the project’s next steps include continuing talking to neighbors about signing the easements. By September, the council hopes to have a report from a project designer about what the trail might look like, Slocum said.

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