Council approves rail corridor purchase

By Ethan Andrews | Jun 30, 2010
Photo by: Ethan Andrews A portion of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor inside the Belfast city limits. On June 29, the City Council voted to buy 3.5 miles of the rail route for future redevelopment as a hiking and biking trail with an accommodation for continued rail service.

Belfast — The city of Belfast aims to be the new owner of a 3.5-mile stretch of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor, following a 4-1 vote by the City Council June 29 to buy the strip for future recreational trail and excursion rail uses.

The vote taken by the Council Tuesday night commits the city to the negotiated $200,000 purchase price, of which Midcoast conservancy Coastal Mountains Land Trust has agreed to pay half.

The group hopes to construct a pedestrian and bicycle path parallel to the train tracks to connect downtown Belfast with several upriver parcels of land already under the conservancy's management.

Scott Dickerson, executive director of CMLT, appeared Tuesday to reiterate his organization's commitment to the project. At the request of Councilor Marina Delune, the vote to buy the corridor included a noted "expectation" that CMLT would contribute $100,000.

The vote split 4-1 with Councilor Lewis Baker opposed on the grounds that it remains unknown how the rail or trail would traverse a parcel of land at the south end of the stretch owned by Penobscot McCrum.

Jay McCrum, Penobscot McCrum company president, said Tuesday afternoon that he had not been in conversation recently with BPS, CMLT or the city about use of the stretch of railway that runs between the plant and Belfast Harbor.

Dickerson said he had not approached McCrum because CMLT did not yet have a claim to the adjacent stretch of the rail corridor.

In the meantime, he said he had considered two alternatives to crossing the property of the potato plant: a footpath from River Avenue, which runs along the west side of the McCrum property, over land owned by the Maine Department of Transportation to connect to the rail corridor under the Route 1 bridge. Another possibility would be for the city to investigate whether River Avenue could be extended from the 90-degree bend in the road toward the base of the bridge.

"There's no question that we would prefer to work out an arrangement with Penobscot McCrum," said Dickerson.

"That's been the large question for us too," said Brooks Preservation Society representative Russell Barber when asked the same question by Baker. Barber said the group had boarded passengers at the old upper bridge, but he did not know if that would be economically viable. "In the long term, anyone who wants to be an operator is gong to need to get into town," he said.

From the other four members of the Council there was strong support for buying the corridor.

Councilor Eric Sanders said sealing the deal would "bring certainty" to the unknown aspects of redeveloping the corridor, and that he was willing to take the risk.

Councilor Roger Lee saw the benefits strongly outweighing the "very small chance" that something could go wrong. City ownership would also guard the corridor against being broken up and sold off to private owners, he said.

"This is one of the easiest decisions I've had to make as a city councilor," Lee said.

Dickerson of CMLT has said that the Passagassawakeag Greenway, as the proposed recreational trail is called, would likely be done in phases, starting with the comparatively easy section between Veterans' Memorial Bridge and the old upper bridge. Dickerson noted that north of the upper bridge the land slopes away around the tracks, leaving little room for a path.

While the partnership —- to be expressed in a formal memorandum of understanding — is between the city and CMLT, both parties have been outspoken that they want to include the railroad in any redevelopment of the corridor.

Brooks Preservation Society has recently been running excursion service on portions of the 30-mile rail route that stretches from Belfast to Burnham Junction. The group leases a majority of the track from MDOT, and until now has held a lease agreement with Unity Property Management to operate rail service on the Belfast segment of the railroad.

Barber said he believed a cooperative arrangement between the city, CMLT and BPS would allow the groups to plan better in relation to what would benefit everyone. "We think this is excellent. It's a win-win all around," he said.

Mack Page Sr, of the City Point Central Railroad Museum was more cautious in his assessment. "We'll see how it works out," he said. "If somebody comes to Mr. McCrum with a large bag of money to develop the property, we can't blame him for wanting to retire."

Negotiations on the sale of the rail corridor date back a number of years, according to Larry Sterrs, chairman and CEO of Unity Foundation, of which UPM is a division.

"Unity Property Management did not want to be a part of the ongoing development and management of that property," he said.

Sterrs said UPM reduced the $700,000 list price for the city to encourage the redevelopment partnership between the city and CMLT.

"It seemed to me that offering it at that low price would be a catalyst to move it forward," he said, adding that the low price would leave the groups with enough money to begin developing the corridor.

"Could we have gotten more for it? Sure," said Sterrs. "But at the end of the day this made the most sense for the community and [for] that property."

In other business, the City Council heard from Thomas Kittredge, the city's new economic development director. Kittredge had been on the job for around one week when he appeared before the council Tuesday.

The new hire acknowledged a list of 22 goals created by the Council and said he hoped to focus on a smaller number of projects.

There was some discussion among the city councilors about what, if any, other duties Kittredge would perform, specifically, if he would ease the workload on the city manager and city planner. Many on the Council seemed to think that Kittredge would, but that this work would all be economic development in nature.

At the end of the session, Councilor Mike Hurley expressed his enthusiasm about several economic development initiatives under way, including the hire of Kittredge and the recent acceptance of Our Town Belfast — formerly the Belfast Downtown Business Group — into the Maine Downtown Network program.

Disclaiming his use of an expression used in relation to the Iraq war, he said, "What we've going is a heck of a surge."

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