BELFAST, Maine — City councilors unanimously voted this week to use eminent domain to get an easement across a 700-foot-long strip of land owned by the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant in order to connect the new rail trail with the Belfast Harbor Walk and downtown.
“I think the city has been patient. I think the city has been reasonable,” Councilor Neal Harkness said during Tuesday night’s regular meeting, adding that people already walk across the McCrum property, though they are not supposed to do so. “Let’s get this done. We have one incredible asset in that entire [trail] system, and we’ve got one road block in the middle of it. It’s got to go. That’s it.”
The council scheduled a public hearing on the eminent domain procedure for Tuesday, June 21.
But Jay McCrum, president of the family-owned potato business, said Thursday he was blindsided by the council’s action.
“It was quite a surprise when I found out about the ultimatum,” he said. “I have emphasized that any time the council would like to talk to me, I would like to talk to them.”
He said he contacted Mayor Walter Ash after learning about the action and a special public meeting has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday, June 10, at Belfast City Hall for McCrum and the councilors to discuss the matter.
On Tuesday, City Manager Joe Slocum told councilors that for several years the city has been talking to McCrum to discuss ways to get across the property. Three months ago, city officials told McCrum that it was a matter of public necessity to get the easement and that Belfast would pay “full and fair value” for it, Slocum said. The city offered him $55,000 for a 14-foot-wide easement across the property, based on an independent appraisal, and asked for a written response by the close of business on Tuesday, June 7.
“That is today, and business is closed. We did not receive a written response from Penobscot McCrum,” Slocum said during the meeting. “We probably needed this easement a year ago. We’re definitely going to need it when the rail trail is open.”
He told councilors the easement is necessary to create public access from downtown to the 2.3-mile rail trail, which may be open as soon as July 4. But the easement also is necessary for safety reasons, the city manager said. If someone had a health issue on the southern portion of the trail and needed assistance, the closest access point for emergency vehicles is at the upper bridge, nearly a mile north of the Penobscot McCrum property. Slocum said Jay McCrum last week indicated the company was consulting with lawyers and insurers and would respond to Belfast “sometime in July — they weren’t sure when.”
“In my opinion, there’s no liability for a rail trail,” Slocum said, adding he is not clear on what McCrum’s concerns are. “This is kind of disappointing, to be honest with you. It’s been a long road.”
McCrum told the BDN Thursday that there are a number of safety concerns.
“There’s an enormous amount of truck traffic in and out of our yard,” he said. “The other concern is that our fuel and propane tanks and also our ammonia system is very close to where the trail would be. The trail would not be policed. It would be open for people to maybe do some stuff they shouldn’t be doing. You never know.”
He said he has offered the city another piece of property to connect to the trailhead — a steep hillside to the north of the potato plant that is known as the Goat Path.
“We’ve offered it to them and they have some concerns,” McCrum said. “There’s a slope to it, but it’s already a usable path that people take to get to the trailhead through our property now.”
On Tuesday night, councilors unanimously voted to direct the city manager and city attorneys to continue good faith discussions with Penobscot McCrum regarding the easement through the property but also to schedule the eminent domain hearing. They also acknowledged that the money offered for the easement is much less than the $400,000 that Penobscot McCrum paid for the 1.32 acre parcel the city wants to cross.
“Eminent domain is a serious process for any property owner,” Councilor Mary Mortier said. We have been very open and willing to make sure that the property owner has access to the waterfront on this property. We’re doing nothing to change the potential, if this particular property owner chooses to sell this property in the future. We’re doing nothing to harm his ability to sell his property for maximum dollar. If anything, this will improve the value of the property.”
Several councilors pointed out that the city’s Harbor Walk travels through Front Street Shipyard, where crews wrangle multimillion-dollar yachts, without any problems.
“The reality is people have become enamored of the Front Street Shipyard while walking back and forth on the Harbor Walk,” Councilor Eric Sanders said. “I see no reason the same couldn’t happen here. Eminent domain may seem like a big, bad thing. But in reality, the city has no other choice at this point. You have a public need to link these up. Let’s get it done.”