BELFAST, Maine — A long-running property rights lawsuit and debate over public access to the shore on the east side of Belfast is close to being settled, giving the city shorefront land and the right to construct a path to the ocean across it, according to city officials.
According to the terms of an agreement recently hammered out between municipal officials and several local landowners, the city now owns an unbuildable waterfront lot with 400 or so feet of shore frontage off Highview Terrace, a subdivision not far from the Searsport town line.
In exchange, the city will release its rights to a historic 32-foot-wide rangeway that runs from U.S. Route 1 to the shore but crosses land that several neighbors believe belongs to them. This solution to the property dispute means the neighbors will have clear title to their properties.
The city has several rangeways, which are holdovers from Belfast’s colonial days. Surveyors laying out the city set aside long, straight strips of land for roads and other public access. Today, the city’s rangeways and rights-of-way provide public access, but not always without controversy. The Highview Terrace rangeway has caused disagreement in part because it has been long unused and it crosses property that the neighbors claim is theirs.
“There’s definitely been a series of efforts over the past 25 years to preserve the rangeways. This one had some complications,” Bill Kelly, a lawyer working for the city of Belfast, said Wednesday. “I’m very pleased with the outcome. I think everybody feels like this is a really good result for each of our interests.”
After city officials last month completed a mediation process with several neighboring landowners, councilors approved a draft consent judgement that should bring the civil lawsuit filed against the city to a close, Kelly said.
That would be a relief to Leeanne Ferland and Joe Perry. Their waterfront property perches on a corner of Highview Terrace subdivision, with the historic rangeway on one side and a 50-foot-wide city owned right-of-way on the other.
The couple has felt squeezed by the competing claims on the property. Although they have come to an agreement with the city over the right-of-way and path that descends to the shore through a corner of their land, they are troubled by the possibility that the city could develop the rangeway. If that happened, a public trail would pass through their rose bushes and uncomfortably close to their home, they said.
When Ferland and Perry purchased their property five years ago, they also bought title insurance. The insurance company learned the title wasn’t clear because of the disputed rangeway, so it brought a lawsuit against the city.
“It’s been contentious,” Perry said Thursday. “Everybody wants it settled and done. Absolutely, it’s been frustrating.”
“It’s just been a mess, for lack of a better word,” she said.
According to city councilors, the crux of the issue is making sure the city secures public access points to the water. Belfast owns or controls multiple such points, but for many years some of them weren’t used, marked or maintained. The overgrown and unidentified public access points had begun to be lost to time and encroaching neighbors, a state of affairs that began to change in the 1990s. That’s when two Belfast men spent hundreds of hours researching the deeds and the history of these access points, spurring municipal efforts to claw them back and protect them.
“The rangeways go back into history before Belfast was incorporated,” City Councilor Mary Mortier said. “It’s just important that we maintain access to the shore for the public. It’s that simple. We don’t want to lose access.”
The Highview Terrace rangeway differs from others in the city in some key ways, Kelly said. In 1960, when the subdivision was approved, the rangeway ran through five or six of the lots. In lieu of the rangeway — which traversed backyards and a wetland — for many years the public could access the water via a zig-zagging path that descended via a city-owned right-of-way from the public road to the rocky beach. The path crossed privately owned land, though, and in 2015, the landowner changed his mind and barred access.
After city officials received complaints about this they eventually built a set of stairs down the bluff. The goal was to keep the path entirely on city-owned land, but it still crossed a portion of Ferland and Perry’s lot. Two years ago, the city came to an agreement with Ferland and Perry about the right-of-way. But the rangeway issue — over the ownership of the disputed strip of land — continued to percolate, Kelly said.
When Ferland and Perry’s title insurance company sued the city last July, the lawsuit included other neighbors as plaintiffs, including Paul and Nancy Hamilton. The suit challenged the city’s claim of ownership over the rangeway, suggesting instead that the rights to the disputed land had disappeared over time “because of various reasons — the subdivision being approved, large trees growing on it, etc.,” Kelly said. “It was a classic suit of whether the rangeway had been abandoned.”
The city contested that position, he said, and during the mediation process came to an agreement with property owners Ferland, Perry, Paul and Nancy Hamilton, Barry Radman and David and Sarah August. According to the consent judgement, the Hamiltons will give the city a long, triangular parcel on the water side of Highview Terrace that will be kept “forever wild.”
“It’s a nice gesture,” Kelly said. “We certainly appreciate the Hamiltons in that regard.”
The Hamiltons have the right to build a set of steps in the middle of the property, according to the agreement. As well, the city will build a new “meandering path” down to the water as close to the existing right-of-way as possible, but which will not cross the Ferland-Perry land. The agreement also detailed that there won’t be any lighting on the parcel or signs on Route 1 advertising its existence. It will be open to the public from 7 a.m. to sunset and have 60 feet on Highview Terrace set aside for parking — enough space for two or three cars.
Paul Hamilton declined to comment on the negotiation this week, saying that it was not yet finalized.
The agreement is a good thing for the city and its residents, Mortier said, adding that it is a lot more land than the 50-foot-wide right-of-way.
“It was a big deal that we got this done,” she said. “We got a lot more shore frontage for the public to have a picnic.”