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Swampscott sizes up rail trail plan

COURTESY PHOTO
A map shows the path of the planned Swampscott Rail Trail. 

By GAYLA CAWLEY

SWAMPSCOTT — Residents got a chance to sound off on plans to convert abandoned railroad tracks into a community rail trail on Thursday night with opponents citing safety, privacy, wildlife and cost concerns. Proponents say the trail provides health benefits and a safe, alternative mode of travel.

Residents packed a room at Swampscott High School for an informational meeting on the rail trail, with heated comments and questions fielded by Peter Kane, director of community development, who started off the discussion with a presentation.

Elizabeth Pappalardo, an abutter of where the trail would be, said her concern was not just about privacy with people making use of it near her property. Her backyard has become home to wildlife, she said, and she sees deer, foxes and skunks. She said she was concerned for the animals who would be displaced.

Pappalardo said she and other neighbors may not be comfortable having swing sets in their backyards, with people cruising through Salem and Marblehead, as the trail would link to the ones in those two communities. She was worried about safety, saying she wouldn’t be able to have her kids in the backyard by themselves any more.

“We’re asking for your help to protect our children, privacy, safety and our town,” Pappalardo said.

Jonathan Leamon, a Swampscott resident, said he is in favor of the trail. As a bicycle rider, he said it’s pretty much a downer when the trail comes into Swampscott and just ends. He argued that the incidences of crime along the rail trails is actually down.

“My goal is to have a rail trail in my lifetime,” Leamon said. “Now that I’m retired, I’d really like to ride on it while I can still ride a bicycle.”

Town Meeting members in May will be asked to approve a warrant article requesting $850,000 to be used for the design and engineering of the trail location within the National Grid corridor, as well as the legal fees and costs for acquisition of the easement rights, as previously reported in The Item.

The Town Meeting funds would not be for construction of the trail, which would be paid for by donations, grants and private funds, officials said.

Kane said $240,000 of those requested funds would be used to hire professionals for design and engineering costs. About $610,000 would for acquisition of easement rights, where the town would work with the property owners (National Grid and/or other parties) to secure the rights. This may be done through eminent domain, with compensation for owners, or by donation/gift of the land.

Town officials met with National Grid representatives in 2014 and 2015, who were believed to be the sole owners of the easement wanted by the town for the trail. Officials said the town had previously been in discussions to acquire the easement from the company for little to no cost, but it has since been learned that National Grid doesn’t appear to own all of the land. Through a title process, numerous owners have been identified, which could include abutters.

The two-plus 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, officials said.

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.

The town has full rights to the area 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.

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Brian Maloney said he was one of the abutters who thinks that he owns land on part of the easement the town is looking to acquire. He said he has legitimate concerns about crime at his house. There have been breaking and enterings up and down the path, he said. Another abutter, who didn’t want to share his name, said he had been robbed three times, and the way the people got access was through the trail.

Maloney said he was also a father of three children and said “I never would have bought this house if I knew this was the case.” He had also grown up in the house, which has been in his family for three generations.

Town Meeting has voted for the creation of the trail on four separate occasions, including three times since 2002, Kane said. 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.

“After 17 years, we sit here tonight,” said Paul Dwyer, an abutter. “We’re going to bet $850,000 that we may be able to finish this with donations.”

Not all abutters were against the trail.

“I don’t have any concerns,” said Frances Weiner. “I welcome the trail.”

Weiner said she was not afraid of being killed on the rail trail. She said she was more afraid of being killed on her bike riding to the rail trail.

Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

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