BELFAST, Maine — The city took a major step Tuesday night down the road toward using eminent domain to purchase a controversial recreation easement across land owned by Penobscot McCrum.
Belfast city councilors unanimously voted at the regular council meeting to adopt a resolution and order that the city acquire the easement by eminent domain and that the city manager and city attorney take the necessary steps to prepare a so-called “certificate of taking,” which they will be asked to approve at the next regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 2. Until then, there is still time to negotiate a deal with the company.
Before adopting the resolution, councilors used occasionally strong language to describe their frustration with Penobscot McCrum, a frozen potato processing plant located on the banks of the Passagassawakeag River. City officials said again at the meeting that they have been trying for years to negotiate with owner Jay McCrum to find a way to cross the 700-foot-long strip of land and connect the new 2.3-mile rail trail with the Belfast Harbor Walk and downtown.
“We were determined to enter good faith discussions to find a safe, accessible way to get through the property,” City Councilor Mike Hurley said Tuesday night. “Eminent domain, to me, was a last resort.”
City Attorney Kristin Collins said that she has made numerous attempts to speak to the company’s attorney, Ed Bearor of Bangor, by telephone and email, ever since a July 6 meeting between the two parties. Although McCrum has said publicly that safety is his big concern with the recreation easement, the city has received no response to its proposals to put up fences and lighting, according to the attorney. Until Tuesday morning, when Bearor sent an email to Collins about land value, the town had received no response at all.
“We plainly recognize from our discussions and from the council’s actions, that the city is determined to use its eminent domain power to take our land and that we are only left to argue about its value,” Bearor wrote in the email. “As I’m sure the city is aware, we paid $400,000 for essentially the same strip of land it wants to take now for only $55,000. We determined that $400,000 was a price worth paying in order to provide the company with adequate space for safe and efficient operations and avoid the intrusions of third parties in our work areas. The exact things that will result from the planned trail through our property.”
Collins told councilors that she believes the email acknowledges the “lawfulness and rightfulness” of using eminent domain to purchase the easement, and that the value of the recreation easement is the only thing left to be argued. In the resolution, the city notes that at the June 21 public hearing on the matter, members of the public who spoke were “overwhelmingly in favor” of pursuing eminent domain if negotiations proved unsuccessful.
Councilor Mary Mortier did not mince words when she described the process of reaching out time and again to the company but hearing nothing back.
“This is nonsense. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it takes two to have a negotiation,” she said. “This is ridiculous. Ridiculous and absurd.”
Councilor Neal Harkness said that he also is dismayed by what has happened.
“We’re not trying to take anything,” he said, adding that the city will not own the land, just the right to cross it. “This is no different than any homeowner in the city with a sidewalk in front of their house.”