The Bingham Forest Authority voted last Thursday to recommend to Bethel selectmen to go to court to determine if the BFA has the right to use the Daisy Bryant Road to access the 2,300-acre Bingham Forest.
“If the judge says ‘no,’ we’re filing papers with the State of Maine [to give the land to the state],” said BFA Chairman Brent Angevine.
Bethel took ownership of the land several years ago under a consent agreement with the state, after the Bethel Water District stopped using the land as a water source. By stipulation of William Bingham II in the 1920s, the land was to be given to Maine if the BWD stopped using it, and be turned into a park or something similar.
But the state did not prefer that arrangement. Under the consent agreement for Bethel to take over the land, a management plan for the property was crafted that included developing low-impact recreational uses such as hiking/biking trails. It was approved by a Town Meeting vote.
The trail work had gotten underway this summer, on adjacent land still owned by the BWD and also accessed via Daisy Bryant Road.
The plan hit a snag last month when some landowners on the road said an easement transferred from the BWD to the town for that access was not valid, and expressed their concerns about the safety of increased use of the one-lane dirt road, as well as privacy issues. They hired an attorney who told the BFA to stop trail work, which it did, in order to “be a good neighbor” while a solution was sought. The trails are currently closed.
Last week BFA trustees discussed the road issue informally for about an hour at their regular meeting with a small number of road residents.
Trustee Jarrod Crockett said that in addition to using the road for recreational access, the BFA also needs it to do the logging that supports the forest management plan and potential recreation.
He said the BFA needed to go to court in order to clarify the road situation, but it would require the BFA to spend the money it has earned so far through logging on legal fees.
“It would be expensive,” said Crockett, who is a lawyer. “We know we’re going to have to spending wood money on that, which is unfortunate, because we would prefer to put it back into trails, like the town voted on. But we don’t have a choice because we can’t invest money in the trails, because what if we lose? … We need to play it safe and conservative.”
Road resident Tammy Davis also expressed concern about legal fees.
But regarding the road issue itself, she said, there is uncertainty about where the original, now-discontinued public road that was used to establish the easement ended.
She had said earlier this summer that if the town wanted to use the road, it should take it over and make it two lanes. However, she also said at last week’s meeting that it seemed unlikely that all road residents would be willing to come to a compromise agreement with the town.
Crockett said everyone on the road would have to be “at the table,” or have that opportunity, to get a legal solution.
Vern Davis wondered if the land could be turned into a community park, with use restricted to SAD 44 area residents. “We’ve never objected to local people going up there. They’re respectful. Many of them stop and ask,” he said.
Angevine and Crockett said a community park arrangement probably would not work under the terms of the consent agreement.
A possible separate solution would be for the town to purchase, largely through grant funding, an adjacent property owned by Stag Properties. The Trust for Public Land is currently researching that option. But, said Angevine, “I feel like that’s a lottery ticket,” and not an alternative to be relied upon.
Crockett moved to recommend that a complete title search and survey of the road be done, and to go to court with a law firm with expertise that would be “most beneficial to the town.”
Selectman Don Bennett, who also attended the meeting, said the BFA has already incurred a legal bill of about $3,500, “and we just have been talking. I can see it multiplying very quickly.” He added that the road residents would have the right to any legal research a town-hired attorney might do.
If the BFA loses in court, said Crockett, it would not be able to execute its charge to carry out the Bingham management plan. For that reason, said Angevine, the BFA would likely start the process to give the land to the state, though he also speculated that the state might decide to wait for a possible outcome from Stag.
The BFA is scheduled to file a report with the state on its progress on the management plan in December.
Crockett also said that as the consent decree was being negotiated in 2009, “other organizations tried to get [the land] before us, before the town did … If we want local control, we need to come up with something.”
Resident Howard Chapman said, however, that he believed if the Bingham management plan was put to Bethel voters again now, they would vote it down.
But Trustee John DeVivo said, “I just can’t believe if you were even to take this to town vote, that you’re going to get a positive vote for handing this piece of property over to the state.”
Crockett said if the property did go back to Maine and it was turned into a game sanctuary, hunters would lose the right to hunt there. “They’re going to be ripped,” he said.
Currently, that right continues on the land and is guided by standard Maine law, Crockett said.
Angevine said if the state ended up with the property, it might give it to the Bureau for Public Lands, which handles the state’s public land.
Bennett said the BFA might need to tell Maine in December that it is in the middle of a “process” and the state would have to wait for that to play out.
A member of the audience asked Angevine if he lived on the road, if he would want the traffic for the trails going by.
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Angevine.
Trustees also got an update from Mahoosuc Pathways, the nonprofit that was contracted to build the trails in the forest. Stephanie LeBlanc said crews had been close to completing the first section of trail when work was stopped. She said all fundraising, marketing and public awareness activities about the trails has also stopped because of the uncertain future of the land. About $15,000 had been raised, she said.
The authority also decided to have Angevine meet with road residents to assess any damage that may have been done by the BFA in the course of the trail work this summer, and try to come up with an equitable solution.