BELGRADE, Maine — Representatives from Pan Am Railways, state officials and town residents will meet in North Belgrade Community Center on Tuesday evening to discuss a fee some residents knew nothing about.
In February, Dick Bickford received a letter in the mail from Pan Am, stating that he owed fees associated with the railroad crossing that stretches across the private road he lives on, Kayak Lane.
Many years ago, he said, railroad companies made agreements with homeowners on private roads to help pay for maintenance of the crossings. It was a $75 fee per year, plus the residents would be required to carry liability insurance for the crossing.
“They’re hauling out these old agreements and trying to make [residents on the road] pay $1,600 a year. That amounts to $400 apiece,” said Bickford, who then mentioned the liability insurance related to damage to the tracks that is not included with homeowners insurance. “So, you’re paying roughly $1,100 to $1,200 a year [total].”
When Bickford bought his home on Kayak Lane in 2000, there was no fee from the railroad attached to his deed, so he never paid it. He never knew it existed, he said.
“Property owners in Belgrade who had crossing agreements received the letter in February about crossing fees going up many times more than they were paying,” said Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade. “Some weren’t paying the fees. It’s raised all kinds of property issues and right-of-way issues. When you start looking into it, it gets complicated.”
Complicating the rail crossing agreement with homeowners, Bickford said, commercial vehicles are not allowed across the tracks without the railroad’s permission.
“If I want oil delivered, I have to call [the railroad] three days prior and pay, by the hour, to have two flagmen stand there while he crosses,” said Bickford.
Bickford also owns a small electrical business on his Kayak Lane property. He isn’t allowed to cross with his commercial vehicle but does anyway.
Also at issue is a 1981 state law that says railroads may not charge a fee for private crossings if the railroad takes a sales tax exemption for iron, rock, rails, ties, switch plates and switches for improving rails.
“If they take that exemption, they can’t charge any fees to us,” said Bickford, who has retained a lawyer.
Pan Am Railways Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano will attend Tuesday night’s meeting along with Keschl and Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. The meeting will start at 6 p.m.
“We’re going there to try to reach some agreement. The people requested we have a meeting and that’s what we’re doing,” said Scarano.
Bickford said 12 homeowners were notified by Pan Am, and will be at the meeting.
“This is a test case right here,” said Bickford. “Whatever they get out of us 12, they’ll march on everybody with it.”
Newport and Fairfield representatives recently expressed their displeasure with Pan Am regarding inaction from the company in fixing railroad crossings in their towns.