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Eminent Domain Claims Longtime Maine Hangout

Fri September 29, 2006 - Northeast Edition

PROSPECT, ME (AP) For motorists bound Down East, the restaurant on a bluff overlooking the Penobscot River was a landmark for decades. Local paper mill workers congregated there after their shifts, truckers wheeled in and sailors from afar found joy in the homey atmosphere of the Sail Inn.

“We were known for our onion rings,” said Vera Dyer, whose family ran the business starting in 1948. Diners also were drawn by the fried clams, lobster rolls, and homemade pies — blueberry, chocolate cream and more.

But now, the Sail Inn is a vacant, silent ghost of the past, the white trim paint above its dusty, green aluminum siding peeling away, windows smudged and clouded, parking lot empty. It was forced to close in 2004 after the state claimed the property due to construction of the new Penobscot Narrows bridge a short distance away.

The new ultra-modern-looking cable stay structure replaces the pale green Waldo-Hancock Bridge, which has been carrying travelers from Prospect to neighboring Verona Island for 75 years.

The state took more than a roadside diner when it seized the Sail Inn by eminent domain. And now the Dyers question whether they were paid fairly for it, and whether the state even needed it.

“You had that feeling there. It was a homey place,” Dyer said while sitting in her two-story home next to the former restaurant, gazing out a window at the breathtaking view. “We’re all still wondering, why did they take it?”

The state defends its action, citing safety concerns and saying the site is needed for the project.

Snuggled between the East Coast’s venerable U.S. Route 1 and a bank far above the blue Penobscot, the Sail Inn was more than a landmark for thousands of locals and wayfarers alike. It formed the fiber of the Dyer family.

Fresh out of high school in the late 1940s, Richard “Eddie” Dyer came north from Beverly, MA, looking to buy his own eatery. Working as a stonecutter by day, he bought the first Sail Inn in 1948. What had at one time been a schoolhouse was a modest roadside structure, outfitted inside with booths, a circular bar, and free-standing tables.

Eddie would step out of the kitchen at night and lead singalongs with his customers, Vera recalled. His eatery was the first place around to get a television, another draw for the regulars. A sign proclaimed it “A place to eat, A place to meet, Enjoy the rest, We serve the best.”

Tugboat drivers used the lighted sign outside the building to help guide them up the river from Penobscot Bay at night, Vera Dyer said.

“It was the only place within 18 miles where you could drink a beer inside,” she said. “There was an ambiance about it that made it very special.”

For a while, Eddie Dyer’s young family lived in an apartment built under the Sail Inn. Eventually needing more space, the family moved to a house next door. But moving day also came for the Sail Inn, due to a highway improvement project in the late 1960s.

Engineers said that rock blasting would damage the foundation of the old eatery and that it would be best to abandon it. Eddie Dyer took out a small business loan and rebuilt right next to the site of the old place. The new Sail Inn opened in 1968.

While newer and farther away from the bridge, the replacement had the same folksy charm. Customers were greeted at the door and servers remembered diners after their first visit.

“You could tell the food was fresh; fresh food at a great price. That’s how their dad operated it for 50 years,” said Sharon Dunbar of nearby Bucksport, who was a regular with her family.

And the spectacular view never changed: The river far below, with an occasional lobster boat puffing by to drop or haul traps, the old suspension bridge in the foreground, and the glistening bay and coastal woodlands and hills off in the distance.

Eddie put his parents to work, said Vera, who did bookkeeping in addition to mostly every other job in the place.

“All of the six kids worked there one way or the other,” she added.

Her son Dick, who remembers peeling potatoes and waiting on tables, said the job taught him how to deal with the public.

Then came construction of the new bridge. A month before ground was broken in December 2003, the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) said it needed the property for the massive project and ordered the restaurant out by January 2004. More than a dozen workers, including a woman who had served tables for 40 years, lost their jobs.

“Basically they said they needed it for a staging area,” said Dick Dyer, whose brothers Paul and Bob were the Sail Inn’s owners. He said the state offered $225,000 for the restaurant and five acres of land that included deep-water river frontage.

The family appealed through a state claims board, which last year awarded the family an additional $245,000, bringing the total to $470,000. But the Dyers were still dissatisfied, especially after their own appraiser valued the property at $1.6 to $1.8 million.

Now the Dyers have appealed the award in Waldo County Superior Court, which is expected to begin proceedings this fall. Besides challenging the size of the award, the Dyers are claiming the land was wrongfully taken because it wasn’t needed. Of the five acres taken, less than a half acre has been used in the project, said Dick Dyer.

Maine DOT bridge project spokeswoman Carol Morris said that even before the land was taken, the state already owned a strip of what the restaurant used as a parking area. With the entrance to the new bridge so close, the safety of restaurant patrons driving in and out of the parking lot would be compromised if it remained open, Morris said.

While acknowledging that the lot has been used only occasionally as a staging area, Morris said it has been used regularly for construction employees’ parking. And she emphasized that much more of the former restaurant’s lot will be used as the $85-million bridge project nears completion in December.

Morris said it’s not unusual for property owners to disagree with the state on payments when their land is taken.

“The state has a responsibility to be as fair as possible not just to the landowners, but to the taxpayers as well,” said Morris.

In its responses filed in court, the state denies all claims and asks that the proceedings be expedited.

On a recent late-summer day, as work on the new bridge continued, a crane was parked on the edge of what had once been the Sail Inn parking lot.

Vera Dyer said she understands government takings for the public good, but in this case she feels it’s gone too far.

“They seem to feel omnipotent, like they can do anything they want to anybody,” she said. “I don’t think they should have that right.”

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