By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — Officials are moving forward with plans to convert abandoned railroad tracks into a community rail trail.
The roughly two-mile trail would run from the Swampscott Train Station to the Marblehead line at Seaview Avenue, connecting with the Marblehead Rail Trail, which also links to trails in Salem. The 10-feet wide trail would cross Paradise Road, Walker Road and Humphrey Street and then go into Marblehead, according to Peter Spellios, a member of the Board of Selectmen.
The rail bed, where National Grid power lines run to Marblehead, has been vacant since the 1960s, when the Marblehead railroad branch shut down. It was sold to National Grid’s predecessor.
Peter Kane, director of community development, said the length of the railroad bed is a significant trail. He said the area the town has full rights to the portion that separates the ballfields behind the middle school and the middle school.
The town would have to acquire the remainder of the easement for recreational use.
Last week, the selectmen unanimously approved putting an article on the Town Meeting warrant that would allocate $850,000 for the easement for recreational purposes, and also pay for design and engineering costs. The funds would not be for construction of the trail, which officials said would be paid for by donations, grants and private funds.
Converting the area into a rail trail has been a part of town discussion since the 1970s, when residents formed a bike path committee, after seeing Marblehead had converted the railway bed into a rail trail. In 1999, a citizen’s group called The Swampscott Partnership Initiative Rails Into Trails (SPIRIT) was formed to bring the trail to fruition and start raising funds, according to Kane.
The first Town Meeting vote was in 2002, when members authorized the creation of a Rail Trail Study Committee to look at developing a rail trail in Swampscott. In 2005, Town Meeting followed up by authorizing a recreational easement and creation of the Rail Trail Implementation Committee. A year was given to develop the easement, Kane said.
In 2006, Town Meeting granted a time extension to acquiring the recreational easement. The most recent Town Meeting vote was 2009, where the recreational easement was once again authorized, but this time without a time restriction.
In 2013, the development of the rail trail was identified as a priority in the Open Space and Recreation Plan. Last year, the rail trail was identified as a priority in the Master Plan process.
Town officials met with National Grid representatives in 2014 and 2015, because they were believed to be the sole owners of the easement wanted by the town for the trail. Originally, Spellios said, the town was in discussion with National Grid to get the recreational easement from them at little to no cost. In 2009, Town Meeting gave the town the authority to use eminent domain for a recreational easement, but didn’t allocate the funds for that process.
Officials have since learned that the land may or may not be owned by National Grid. Residents had reached out to the rail trail committee, and said the company doesn’t own the easement or doesn’t own all of it. Spellios said National Grid doesn’t appear to own all the land.
“For years, we’ve gotten stuck behind this idea that we’re just waiting for National Grid to give us the recreational easement for zero dollars, and the reality is, concerns have been expressed that National Grid doesn’t own it at all could very well be valid,” Spellios said. “So, the important message here is whoever does own it, they require compensation and they will receive compensation. This really is the only next step after so many years of inaction by the town to be able to move this forward.”
Through a title process, Spellios said numerous owners have been identified, which could include abutters.
When it is constructed, Kane said the concept for the trail would be crushed stone, similar to Marblehead’s trail. He said it would provide a recreational amenity for the community that cuts through the center of town, and would be easily accessible.
“This is a no-brainer to me,” said Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the board of selectmen. “We need to move forward. I want to see it happen.”
Laura Spathanas, board vice-chair, agreed.
“I’ve always been a proponent of the rail trail,” she said. “I think it would be a great amenity and a great resource in the town.”
No residents spoke for or against the rail trail at last week’s selectmen meeting.
Gayla Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.