More than a year ago the city of Belfast bought a 3-mile railroad easement from Unity Property Management that runs from the northerly line of Penobscot McCrum to the Waldo town line.

This easement runs between 66 and 99 feet in width. The majority of the easement is 99 feet wide. The Council bought this easement for the benefit of all of the citizens of Belfast. As an asset owned by more than 6,700 people, we want to have it realize its maximum potential on their behalf.

At purchase, the city announced its intent to develop a beautiful, highly scenic, non-motorized trail within this railroad corridor for the benefit of all of our citizens and our guests. The vision is to be able to walk along Belfast’s storied waterfront, covering park areas, working waterfront, restaurants, retail areas, the Armistice Bridge, etc., and then traverse up along the river underneath the natural canopy of trees and water vistas. This trail could be one of the most beneficial and defining characteristics of this City.

As we have prepared to work on this trail we have reviewed the national legal disagreement within the judicial community as to whether easements for all purposes relating to railroads also encompass other types of uses as well (pipelines, cable lines, etc.) Some judge’s decisions interpret these railroad corridor easements broadly, others interpret them narrowly.

This lack of absolute legal certainty hampers our forward movement on the development of this trail. As we have further investigated funding sources, we have become acutely aware of their core need to be certain of our ability to construct. They want to know that if funded, we have the clear ability to carry the project forward.

We want to move forward in a positive way that eliminates risk of having the project drag because of lack of funding or interruption caused by a challenge to build a non-motorized trail within the boundaries of our railroad corridor. Hours of effort, time, money and energy put into designs and construction could be interrupted leading to a loss of non-property tax funds and enhanced construction costs.

Today the city of Belfast has the unqualified legal right to allow people to walk up and down those railroad tracks everyday. We also have the right to bar anyone from crossing the corridor or from being anywhere within the corridor itself. The city of Belfast wants to have a safe rail and a safe trail opportunity for its owners — our citizens. The trail uses can be preserved for everyone’s benefit. The operation of a full railroad enterprise consumes a greater imposition through this corridor than someone walking a baby stroller or riding a bike.

Prudence encourages the city to ask itself, what is our worst-case scenario? The worst would be to find ourselves in the throes of funding applications and grant applications, actual design and perhaps construction, and suddenly one person decides to challenge our legal right to develop this trail, putting money, time and effort at risk.

Beyond delays and potentially lost financial resources under a worst-case scenario, some judge could conclude that they don’t believe that the railroad easement encompasses the ability to have a trail alongside it within the same footprint.

While we don’t believe such a scenario would ever be warranted, the city’s commitment to build this trail has encouraged us to prepare for it nonetheless. Hence, we hired an independent appraiser and asked them to assume the worst-case scenario. We asked what would be the additional value lost to an abutting property owner by having not only the rail, but also a trail within that same easement.

We were advised that the value of the incremental imposition upon the underlying land was less than $4,500 for the entire 3 miles of proposed trail. The appraiser, however, came back to us and said that he needed to know exactly where the trail would fall within this easement, as the topography and demographic of the land changed throughout this 3-mile stretch and accordingly the value lost or imposed on the abutting property owner would change according to the unique characteristics of the underlying property.

The city responded that we could not identify exactly where the trail would go through the 66- to 99-foot-wide easement because that work had not been done yet. Alternatively, we asked the appraiser to place a value on the trail assuming that it was over any or all parts of the 66- to 99-foot-wide easement.

The appraiser advised that this value was identified in the range of about $40,000, and broke down the amounts that could be owed to each of the 27 properties along this 3-mile stretch if we assumed that there was no existing right to build this trail.

While $40,000 is certainly a lot of money, it is likely less than what the city would have to spend on a single legal challenge. We would easily spend that amount even if the courts agreed with the city’s convictions about its legal ability to build this trail.

In further consultation with the city attorney, it was realized that if we secured releases from the 24 property owners who own these 27 properties then there would be no doubt about the trail and we could plan, work and fundraise without worry of interruption to develop this highly valued community asset.

The city has made it clear that its intent to build this trail is for the betterment of everyone. We will now go forward and meet with these property owners and extend to them the cash offer identified by our independent appraiser. We feel this is the fairest way to deal with property owners to obtain the certainty we need, even though we continue to believe that the railroad corridor easement would allow us to build this trail.

This will helps us confidently move forward and raise private dollars and public dollars to make this great opportunity come to fruition.

Imagine one day being able to use your downtown sidewalks to access your new harbor walk and then making your way up along the beautiful Passagasawakeag. Great exercise, great beauty, great opportunity for a great city.

As the City Manager, I am charged to maintain and sometimes improve the quality of life here. I also work to develop the community’s economic resources for the betterment of everyone. When an idea comes up, I always ask myself is it good for Belfast’s citizens first, and then secondly I ask, “Will this activity attract others and enhance other aspects of our community?”

I cannot think of any development we could pursue in the next five years that would have a greater positive impact upon our local quality of life as well as our ability to attract others then the development of this trail.

The Council has asked me to move forward in a positive way to work with these neighbors to try and secure these releases so this great project can take a big step forward. We now embark upon that effort.

Joe Slocum is Belfast’s city manager.