Dale Henderson has no intention of giving up a fight.
For weeks, the prominent eastern Maine landowner has been battling the Maine departments of transportation and conservation on their rail rehabilitation project, part of which runs through his land in Hancock.
First, he wanted the state to divert part of the Calais Branch Corridor Rehabilitation, an 87-mile multiuse trail from Ellsworth to Pembroke, around his 7,000-acre plot. Then the Orrington man filed a temporary restraining order to halt the project, which was denied. Next, he wanted the state to construct a fence, at its expense, along the 4.5-mile stretch of old rail bed through his land, a court action that is still pending.
Now, Henderson and his attorney, Tim Pease of Bangor, are examining whether the state even has ownership rights to the railroad land in the first place.
“That would be a significant development. If it turns out the state doesn’ t own this land, it can’ t do anything,” Pease said in a recent interview at his office. “But then you have to ask: Who does own the land?”
That’ s what Pease is trying to determine, although he admitted his research is not complete. So far, though, the attorney has found existing case law that suggests that when the rail bed ceased operation sometime in the 1970s, the state lost its ownership rights.
Nate Moulton, who manages the rail program for the DOT, said he has heard that argument before.
“Railroads that were taken [by eminent domain] back in the 1800s had easement clauses that stipulated that when the railroad ended, ownership would revert back to the abutting landowner,” he said. “The difference with this rail project is that we own the land. It’ s not an easement.”
Pease has yet to file an amendment to his initial lawsuit, which calls for DOT to build a fence, that would address ownership rights. Henderson maintained that he’ s willing to see this through to the end.
“I think people who know me know I won’ t lay down for this,” he said this week.
In addition to Henderson, other opponents have started to mobilize against the $3.9 million project, which began earlier this year and will continue until this time next year. The project involves removing rails and crossties from the inactive rail bed and converting what’ s left to a public trail for snowmobiles, ATVs, hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers and more.
John Cox of Jonesboro has started a petition trying to halt the project and had gathered about 300 signatures as of Tuesday.
Mark Latti, spokesman for the DOT, said he’ s not concerned about the public dissent.
“Unfortunately, it’ s the cost of doing business these days,” he said. “We’ re going to continue to do what’ s right in restoring this [rail] for future use.”
As far as the courts go, Latti said, “they have already ruled in favor of us once, so we have no reason to believe they won’ t again.”