Planned Belfast trail brings out strong, polarized feelings

Posted Jan. 16, 2013, at 3:06 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 17, 2013, at 1:11 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — City residents have strong feelings about a plan to develop a pedestrian trail along the former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad right of way — both in favor and against it.

The price for the long-discussed three-mile pathway is likely to fall between $104,000 and $240,000, plus the salvage value of any rails, ties and other railroad infrastructure, according to numbers shared recently in a memorandum given to the Belfast City Council by Assistant Planner Jamie Francomano. The councilors heard details from a feasibility plan done by an engineering firm at Tuesday night’s regular city council meeting, as well as responses from residents about the proposed walkway.

“I am a huge fan of rail trails and canal trails. I should love this project,” Ashley Messner, who lives close to it with her family, said at the meeting. “I don’t. Trails generally go from point A to point B, with stops in between. We’re just kind of starting, and we’re stopping.”

In addition to questioning the planning behind the trail, which would follow the Passagassawakeag River from the harbor in a northwesterly direction, she wondered about amenities including trash pickup, parking and bathroom facilities. Those aren’t currently planned for, she said.

Messner added that because she drives along the river every day and enjoys sights such as eagles flying overhead, she knows why the city wants it to be more accessible to others.

“We want people to see this. It’s beautiful,” she said. “But I don’t think this is the right way.”

But others who spoke at the public hearing disagreed with Messner’s conclusions.

“I think this trail is a great idea,” Mark Lishner of Belfast said. “I think it would be just a great thing for the city. I think it will bring people in.”

Skip Pendleton, a longtime city advocate for more trails, told the councilors that it would be an added feature to Belfast that would lure more cross-country skiers and hikers to the city. It’s worth the price, he said. The city already has spent $200,000 on the trail plan by purchasing the right-of-way from the Unity Foundation in 2010.

“When you start talking money, you need to think that this will be around for 100 years,” he said.

Councilors also heard more about the trail from Gregory Bakos, the engineering consultant with Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. He told them that paving the trail from the Penobscot McCrum property at the southern end to Kaler Road in the northeast would add $400,000 to the cost of the project. The existing trestle bridge would need to be retrofitted for pedestrian use at a cost of about $100,000, he said.

“We consider the bridge currently a barrier to the trail,” Bakos told the council. “Another barrier is the Penobscot McCrum property.”

That’s because the city no longer owns the railroad right-of-way past the food processing plant and would instead need to route the trail just north of the pedestrian footbridge. The steep grade of the terrain there would require the trail to be built with a series of sloping switchbacks, at a possible cost of $400,000.

Bakos said that some companies build trails for municipalities in exchange for being able to take away the railroad tracks, which they presumably sell for scrap metal.

“There must be a fair amount of value in that steel,” he said.

He said that the city likely could apply for federal grants to help with building the trail.

“Federal money comes with a lot of strings, a lot of red tape and a lot of administrative costs — but typically allows you to get a trail you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise,” Bakos said.

Scott Dickerson, the executive director of the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, told the council that his agency was looking forward to helping raise funds for the project, once there is a final plan and a final budget.

Councilors also heard from railroad advocates who are concerned that existing passenger rail service through the Brooks Preservation Society would be saved.

After the public hearing, Councilor Roger Lee said he was confident that questions about the trail could be resolved in a way that “everyone affected is pleased.”

“We need to do something that accommodates the railroad function up there,” he said. “The marriage of the railroad with the trail — it could be wonderful.”

The council voted to not further consider paving the trail or construct a pricey switchback trail at the southern end, or “goat path.” Councilors plan to take more action on the trail plan at the Feb. 5 meeting.

In additional business, the council:

• Learned from City Manager Joe Slocum that Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget would likely mean $650,000 in municipal revenue sharing cuts for Belfast.

• Heard a brief presentation from Scott Hawthorne of Mathews Bros. about his company’s request to have the city approve the submission of a letter of intent for a Community Development Block Grant for a “groundbreaking window energy product.”

“This is a technology that is game-changing,” Hawthorne said, adding that he couldn’t say more about it because of a nondisclosure agreement his company has. “I can tell you it will change the way you think about windows.”

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story contained wrong cost estimates. Instead of costing between a half million and $1 million to construct, by eliminating the most costly elements of the proposal at the Tuesday night city council meeting, councilors have brought the price range to between $104,000 and $240,000, plus the salvage value of any rails, ties and other railroad infrastructure.

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