A proposed walking and non-motorized recreation trail along a portion of the former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad may be years away, but on Tuesday, Sept. 6, the City Council approved a plan that would offer payoffs to abutting landowners in a preemptive effort to avoid future legal challenges.

Slocum said the idea arose after an abutter who opposed the construction of the walkway pointed out conflicting legal precedents for what can happen within a railroad easement. An opinion from the city attorney confirmed this “lack of clarity,” which Slocum said exists around the country.

Because grants or donations would likely figure in the construction of the path, which is being spearheaded by Camden-based nonprofit Coastal Mountains Land Trust, Slocum said it was important to take the extra step to remove any doubt as to whether the trail could be built.

“[CMLT is] a group that raises private money,” Slocum said on Thursday, Sept. 8. “They’ve got to convince donors, if you invest in this, then they can make it happen.”

The city owns the rail corridor, which presumes a 90-foot easement through the lots of 20 property owners along the roughly 3-mile route, and Slocum said that ownership is probably enough authority to build the trail. But as a precaution he hired an independent appraiser, who put a $40,000 price tag on the incremental property value loss to neighbors of the railroad.

“We’re out there trying to say we’ll be a good neighbor,” Slocum said. “We’ll work with owners of properties, but we’re also trying to say, this asset belongs to 6,700 people … and we want to realize the value of that asset for all those 6,700 people.”

The Council approved presenting these findings to abutters in hopes of getting release deeds that would prevent future challenges to the construction of the recreation trail.

Chess club mystery patron changes rules

Council members puzzled over an anonymous offer to foot the bill for the Belfast Chess Club, provide the club no longer meet at the Belfast Free Library.

City Manager Joe Slocum, who raised the subject, said the donor was serious about remaining anonymous and had not offered an explanation of why the gift of $2,500 was contingent upon the club being relocated. Slocum said the Game Loft had been approached and had declined to host the club and that talks were underway with the school district.

Several councilors seemed confused by the conditions of the gift, including Eric Sanders, who has children in the club. Sanders said he didn’t know why the donor wouldn’t want the program at the library and raised the possibility of the city putting up the money. But Councilor Mike Hurley argued that the city receives too many other requests within that price range to simply foot the bill without more discussion.

Councilor Marina Delune asked if the city could request an explanation from the donor, but Slocum said it was unlikely he would get a response. The city manager chalked it up to the donor’s prerogative to dictate the terms of the offer. Other members of the Council fished for some rationale, but the answer proved elusive.

The Council asked Slocum to invite Library Director Steve Norman to the Council’s next meeting in hopes of getting more information. The matter was tabled until that meeting.

Speaking on Wednesday, Sept. 7, Norman said the chess club has been underwritten by a foundation in past years. He declined to name the group and said historically the patron had not been open to solicitations.

“They call us, we don’t call them,” he said.

Norman said the pairing of the club and the library was somewhat unusual — more often chess clubs are affiliated with schools — and while the library was happy to host the club, the cancellation of the program has opened the third floor conference room for several new youth reading groups.

“So in a way, that’s a more traditional library program,” he said.

Speaking on Sept. 8, Slocum said there was a lot of confusion that he believes could have been avoided with better communication between the library’s board of trustees and the city. The reason the city continues to be involved in a case where the donor no longer wants to use a city facility is because of the history of the chess club in the community, he said.

“I don’t know who the donor is. I don’t know what the donor’s goals were out of the donation,” he said. “Most donors have a goal.”

Maskers get a reprieve

The Belfast Maskers were given a less ambiguous stay than the chess club when the city’s insurance carrier agreed to continue to provide casualty insurance to the waterfront building that serves as the theater group’s home base until the end of April 2012, provided the group continues to provide its own liability insurance.

The Maskers had previously been told they needed to be out by Monday, Oct. 3, and supporters mounted a public appeal to the city for help in moving two decades worth of accumulated materials and equipment.

According to Slocum, the reprieve came out of a meeting between the head of the insurance arm of Maine Municipal Association and Assistant to the City Manager Jennika Lundy in which Lundy described the hardship the early deadline would create for the theater group.

Slocum said the insurance representative subsequently overruled the underwriting department and granted the Maskers, via the city, an additional six-and-a-half months to vacate the former railroad building.

A representative of the Maskers was present at Tuesday night’s meeting and expressed her appreciation for the extension.

Speaking Friday, Sept. 9, Maskers’ Artistic Director Aynne Ames said the company is looking for a new performance space, but noted that there aren’t many options out there.

“We don’t know where we’re going with these materials, but we’ll keep trying,” she said.

Ames said the Maskers have already made arrangements to stage two upcoming performances at other venues, including “Talking Heads,” opening Oct. 13 at the First Church parish, and “Anne of Green Gables,” scheduled to run in late November at the Shrine Club.

In other business, the Council:

• Approved a total smoking ban for all city parks. The ordinance reads, in full: There will be no smoking or tobacco use in any City Parks.

• Authorized buying a new cruiser for the police department, and a three-quarter-ton pickup truck for the Public Works Department.

• Accepted a $28,593 bid from All-Tech Weighing Systems for a truck scale to be installed at the transfer station, and authorized the city manager to bypass the city’s competitive bidding requirement in order to hire an experienced scale foundation contractor. The city has set aside roughly $74,000 to install the scale, which would allow workers to charge accurate fees for construction debris, previously estimated by sight. Quotes from outside contractors exceeded the budgeted amount, but Slocum said conversations with Public Works Director Bob Richards indicated it could be done for less if the city does some of the work. Asked about the timeline for the project, Slocum said 6-7 weeks, and that work would start the following day.

• Approved a letter to abutters of the city’s rangeways and rights of way. The letter essentially states that the city has no current plans for the rangeways but means to retain and protect its ownership of the roughly one dozen public access routes to the bay.

• Authorized the city manager to do all necessary documentation related to two Community Development Block Grants recently awarded to the city — $150,000 toward the Harbor Walk and $300,000 for improvements to multifamily housing units. Councilor Roger Lee asked for a requirement that recipients of the money for improvements to multifamily buildings meet a threshold of basic weatherization, either before the award, or as a result of work done with the grant money. Lee described an uninsulated apartment building near his home in which the tenants are responsible for their own heating bills. In a case like that, Lee said the landlord would not have an economic incentive to weatherize. Program administrator Ron Harriman told the Council that an energy audit was part of the program and that improvements would be made with the results of the audit in mind. “The program will be calling the shots, and it’s not our intention to do a Band-Aid treatment on any of these properties,” Harriman said.

• Awarded a contract to George C. Hall and Sons of Rockland for $369,534 — the construction cost of an estimated half-million dollar addition to the Belfast Municipal Airport. The Apron Expansion Project would make improvements to accommodate larger planes that have been using the airport. The estimated $525,358 total cost is to paid, in part, through a $499,000 grant and roughly $13,000 of city money. The Council also approved spending an additional $973 from the airport’s capital reserve account for unrelated maintenance work that came in over budget.

• Tabled discussion of a longevity raise for the city planner, based on the recent discovery that his salary was exempt from the step raises given to all other city employees except the city manager, whose salary is contract-based. Council members expressed strong support for a merit-based increase for City Planner Wayne Marshall, but the issue was tabled until the next meeting based on a request from Councilor Roger Lee to review the city’s formula for time-based pay raises.

• Held a closed-door session on a legal matter, but took no action.