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Belfast developer Paul Naron and city officials have been feuding for months over what to do with a popular trail that travels through his two waterfront properties.
City councilors have made it clear that they want Naron to give the city a permanent easement for the Belfast Harbor Walk to guarantee public access into the future. But Naron, who said that he wants the walkway to remain open to the public, has balked at giving the city this much control over his land.
Despite both public and private negotiations, one of which resulted in a “semi-public shouting match,” according to the Republican Journal, the two parties remain at an impasse.
The City Council has this much control over the properties that Naron is trying to develop because they are subject to contract, or spot zoning, a strategy that is intended to give the owner a wider variety of possible uses while allowing the City Council to approve or reject specific elements of a zoning plan.
A month ago, Naron’s attorney, Joe Baiungo, attempted to thread the needle by offering the city a different way out: rather than giving the city a permanent easement across the properties, the developer’s business permits would be tied to a license to allow continued public access to the Harbor Walk. If he closes the path for any reason, the city can take away his permits.
Although this idea initially seemed to spark the councilors’ interest, the parties still have not been able to resolve the dispute. At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Baiungo asked the councilors to lay their cards on the table.
“It does appear we have reached a snag,” the attorney said. “What I’m here for today is to ask the council to vote up or down” to grant Naron his permits to move forward with his development project. “If you vote no today, and deny him his permit, you’re still not going to get what you want.”
Rather than hold the vote, councilors told the attorney they needed to run the latest permutation of the deal by the city’s attorney again. In particular, councilors and city officials balked at Baiungo’s assertion that the city does not have the legal right under contract zoning to demand a permanent easement in exchange for granting the permits for a project that has otherwise been deemed acceptable.
“It’s growing weary, for people from the city to come back with all their ideas of what Paul should do with his property,” Baiungo said.
City Manager Joe Slocum, who is also an attorney, pushed back, saying that the city is within its rights to ask for this easement. He said that Naron has asked for many benefits from the city in his permit applications and the city is simply trying to negotiate the easement on behalf of the people of Belfast.
“He’s not being told what to do,” Slocum said.
Councilor Mary Mortier said that she is worried that Naron may be negotiating in bad faith, because in April, during a low point in the negotiations, he put his two waterfront properties up for sale.
“There’s a part of me that has a problem with that. That’s not negotiating coming from a fair place,” she said. “Somebody could purchase the parcels tomorrow, or next week or whenever.”
She said that she believes the public wants the Belfast City Council to continue seeking a permanent easement across the Harbor Walk, and that she has heard more public comments on this issue than any other in her tenure as councilor.
“The constant comment … was to hold firm,” she said. “[They said] ‘this is important to our children. This is important to our future. Don’t back down.’”
Baiungo, though, said he is hoping that Naron will be able to get closure on the issue “relatively quickly.”
“It actually feels like we’re moving backwards and people are feeling worse about this process every time we meet,” he said. “It just feels like we’re at the point when we have to make a decision.”
In other business, councilors unanimously voted to accept the proposed budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year. In the new budget, property taxpayers will pay a total of $17.35 million. Of that sum, $5.32 million will be used to pay for the portion of the city budget that is raised in property taxes, $10.49 million will pay for the city’s share of the Regional School Unit 71 budget and $1.53 million will pay for the Waldo County budget.
The tax, or mill, rate for the combined county, school and city property taxes will increase from $22.70 per $1,000 of assessed value to $22.90 per $1,000 of value.
Belfast will return to the same tax rate it had two years ago with this budget, Slocum said, adding that if a property is valued at $100,000 then its total tax bill will increase by $20. Early, dire budget forecasts were partially mitigated by a larger-than-usual allocation of state aid through Maine’s revenue-sharing program.
Slocum wrote in his manager’s report that in 2007, the city received $911,000 in revenue sharing from the state but last year received only $418,382. This year, Belfast will see 3 percent of its income and corporate tax receipts returned to it, or $686,693.
“It was certainly as painful an endeavor as any I’ve gone through,” Councilor Mike Hurley said of the budget process. “This year could have been worse, if we didn’t have the state money coming back to us.”
Related: Hike the Little River Community Trail in Belfast