Land-rail dispute in Somerset County causing frustration among snowmobilers, landowners
BINGHAM, Maine (WABI) - A land-rail dispute continues in Somerset County.
It involves a handful of landowners that own land along the Solon-Bingham Railbed, also known as the Kennebec Valley Trail.
As TV5 found out, this ongoing dispute is causing headaches for Bingham businesses who say they’ve lost thousands of dollars over it.
Now, the landowners and business owners are demanding answers from the state.
“One minute it’s open. One minute it’s not. One minute there is trees down, and one minute there is not. We just cannot operate like that,” said Scott Newton of 201 PowerSports in Bingham.
Newton is also the Trailmaster for Valley Riders SC.
He says it all began when some trees were dropped across the trail by a landowner.
Similar incidents have taken place since then.
“We were informed we could open the trail. It had been closed and we could maintain it. We got away with that for a few weeks, and then once these public safety issues started coming back up again, nothing is being done about it,” he said.
The Bureau of Parks and Lands has managed the Kennebec Rail Trail with local snowmobile, ATV clubs, and towns since the early 1980s.
In a statement to TV5, the department says, “The Bureau recently acquired CMP’s rights, title and interest in the Trail, with the aim of securing permanent use. The Trail is an important recreational and economic asset to the region, with local businesses relying on income from recreational users. It is our hope that the issue surrounding other claims of ownership is quickly resolved.”
“Now we are in a position where this landowner has agreed to reassign a landowner agreement form to use his land to the north, and he is okay with grooming equipment,” Newton said. “The problem is, the club is still in a lawsuit with this same landowner and four others, so the club had voted that we should not be on his property with club equipment maintaining the system. The state tells me how that works is that they cannot fund it. If they cannot fund it, they cannot authorize a section of trail to be open because they cannot insure to the public that it’s safe and being maintained.”
With 3.2 miles of the trail being blocked off to riders, a 10-mile detour has been set up, but that means the club cannot say they have an open trail system in and out of Bingham. It’s a situation that’s become confusing for riders, especially those coming from out of state.
“There was some who canceled two weeks ago when the trail was shut down,” said Bill Varney of Bingham. “We were over here at the pub having dinner and a customer came in who had rented one of the big camps, and they left early because the trails were closed, from out of state.”
“We do have access in and of town that will be maintained as time permits to get in and out,” Newton said. “The remainder of our 100 miles will be maintained with our big equipment, but that means people are forced around our community which means they do not have easy access to fuel, food, or a belt or spark plug. "
“People are driving right through Bingham, and that’s not how it should happen,” said Alen Swett, President of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
Swett hopes a resolution will be made soon but is hoping the town can step up to help these businesses who are being affected.
“I wish I could help them more,” he said. “The clubs are my top priority, but I just don’t know what else to do. Let’s get it done and get our ITS 87 back.”
“I don’t know how long this thing is going to drag out,” said Varney. “It’s going to court, and it’s going to take a long time. It’s just the wheels of justice turning very slowly, and it’s affecting businesses. It affected businesses when they shut down everything.”
“They are aggressively trying to hopefully settle this out of court with a proper resolution that helps both sides. The state is willing to put security cameras up on this railroad bed – these six and a half miles that can be monitored and the people who are breaking the rules and causing the problems can be punished. We all need to work together. Their side needs to understand our side, and we need to do the same,” said Newton.
According to the Bureau of Parks and Lands, a meeting was held earlier this week with the legal teams representing the state and the landowners involved in the rail-trail lawsuit.
All parties on the call agreed a public meeting to discuss the issue would be premature. As a result, they suggest scheduling a meeting where there is progress to report from their end, likely during mud season, which generally runs mid-March through the end of April.
Newton adds he would like to see the state file an injunction on behalf of the club and the community to keep the trail open until the civil matter is resolved.
As for him and the rest of the club, they’re asking riders to show their appreciation and gratitude to local businesses who need to get caught up after losing much of their traffic last week.
If you’re heading out on the trail they ask riders to respect the landowners, have fun, and most importantly – ride safe.
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