April 06, 2020

Right of way dispute resolved in Belfast

BELFAST – A settlement has been reached that gives the city control of a historic right of way leading to Penobscot Bay from U.S. Route 1 (Searsport Avenue).

The city’s use of the right of way, which runs along the west side of the Moorings Campground on Route 1, had been contested by campground owner Vernon James Dobias, even though there is documented history of the way going back more than two centuries.

Although Dobias contended that he owned the right to the shore, District Court Judge John Nivison ruled June 26 that he was mistaken.

The right of way was clearly established by Belfast’s original settlers in the 1760s, the judge found. The settlement accepts Nivison’s ruling as fact.

“We are pleased with the result,” City Attorney William Kelly said Monday. “This is a right of way we have always had. We have the same rights as we have on High Street or any other street. It’s a true right of way.”

The memorandum between Dobias and the city was signed by Dobias and City Manager Terry St. Peter last week. The agreement came at a time when the matter was a pending case on the state supreme court docket. The city spent approximately $20,000 in legal fees.

Under the terms of the agreement, both sides agreed to drop their appeals to the court and accept the Nivison decision “in full force.”

The agreement also requires Dobias to remove specific encroachments within the right of way – such as camper trailer utility hookups by July – while at the same time allowing the campground gate and signposts that encroach a few inches into the right of way to remain in place.

In addition, Dobias agreed that neither he nor his employees would “discourage, interfere with or harass” members of the public or city employees from using or maintaining the right of way.

“The good thing is that we also have a mechanism that prevents harassment of people using the right of way,” Kelly said. “We have a contract.”

Nivison’s ruling stated that the city had “obtained a non-possessory” interest in the 2-rod-wide rangeway to the water.

In it he agreed with the city’s contention that public access to the shore was established in 1769 when the heirs of Samuel Waldo sold the property now known as Belfast to 35 “proprietors,” or investors.

The proprietors then divided the city into 52 lots containing 13 rights of way, or “rangeways,” to provide access to the shore for fishing and hunting.

Because no deeds to the original lots were recorded, Dobias argued that the city had abandoned its rights decades ago and that ownership of the rangeway had reverted to him.

Nivison rejected that position by noting that “the proprietors plainly intended to convey to the city some interest in the rangeway” in question.

Although some of the 13 rangeways later became city streets or paths to the shore, others became overgrown with vegetation.

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