A temporary barricade has closed a section of the Belfast Rail Trail since the March 24 fire destroyed the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant. The downtown Belfast entrance to the trail runs through the McCrum property. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — When the Penobscot McCrum factory burned down weeks ago, it caused a surprising casualty: Almost half of the Belfast Rail Trail.

The downtown Belfast entrance to the popular 2-mile-long pedestrian and bicycle trail, which follows the Passagassawakeag River all the way to City Point, is located on McCrum property. That entrance has been inaccessible to the public since the March 24 fire destroyed the potato processing plant.

Despite there being no damage to the trail, city officials have closed almost half of it to prevent people from approaching the downtown entrance.

A sign on a temporary barricade near the Upper Bridge parking lot alerts would-be walkers, joggers and cyclists that the section of the trail from Upper Bridge to downtown Belfast will be closed until further notice. The open portion of the trail can still be accessed from Upper Bridge and City Point.

Nearly a month after the fire, the closure isn’t expected to end soon. City officials said it could be four to six weeks before the trail is fully accessible and reopened — a timeframe which feels like too long to many avid users.

“Here in the bike shop, we’re having people ask daily about when it will be reopened,” Chris Gardner of CG Bikes in downtown Belfast said Wednesday. “I understand that there are other entrances open, but this is the most significant. People here are wanting to ride their bikes on it and walk on it. It’s become really a sort of crown jewel of Belfast, and it seems a shame that it’s not accessible right now.”

During Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting, City Manager Erin Herbig said that the closure was a question of public safety.

“The city has been working with the McCrum family, obviously post a really devastating fire,” she said. “We are waiting for them to get the site more secure before the public can go through that area.”

The McCrum family has secured a contractor to begin clearing the site, work that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will monitor, she said. Concerns to the public include large excavators that will be working to clear debris from the factory site, animals attracted by rotting food left in the building and potentially hazardous waste from the site, Herbig said.  

“We want the Rail Trail open as soon as possible. We want to keep public safety our number one concern,” she said. “We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen while this mess was being cleaned up.”

Since the McCrum fire on March 24, the Belfast Rail Trail has been closed from downtown Belfast to the Upper Bridge parking area (near Stephenson Preserve). Credit: Courtesy of Coastal Mountains Land Trust

But City Councilor Mike Hurley, himself a regular user of the Rail Trail, said that he thought the timeline is problematic. He pointed out that the McCrum property also borders on Pierce Street, Front Street and River Road, and that workers have carefully fenced it in to allow for safe public access to those roads. Hurley would like to see something like that happen on the Rail Trail side of the property, so that the public could still access the trail while work happens safely on the site.

“I really hope they’ll do something faster than four to six weeks,” he said. “That is a really long time.”

Hurley also suggested that even if the McCrum entrance remains closed, the city could open the whole trail but alert users that there is no access to downtown Belfast.

“For myself, I would make it a cul de sac, just with no exit,” he said. “Rather than closing the entire Rail Trail from the Upper Bridge.”

Gardner, who is also the chair of the city’s Pedestrian, Biking and Hiking Committee, said that expanding the use seems important. Other city construction projects, including the recent demolition of the EmBee Cleaners building on Church Street, have not resulted in public blockages, he said.

“I understand there are concerns for the potential for hazardous waste. But I just wonder if there’s not room for a second opinion to get that section of trail open as soon as possible,” he said. “It seems like it should be possible to open it up. It just takes a little willpower.”