Ifs, ands, and abutters may force trail off Grid

(File Photo)

Pictured is a plan for the Swampscott rail trail.


SWAMPSCOTT — National Grid representatives have informed town officials that they will not voluntarily enter into a license with the town for a proposed rail trail within the company’s corridor.

Town Meeting members will be asked to approve a warrant article on May 15 requesting $850,000 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.

The two-plus mile, 10-foot wide 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, officials said.

A recent email from a National Grid representative, Michael Guerin, was sent to Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald and director of community development Peter Kane in response to Kane’s April 6 email requesting a meeting to discuss the town’s proposed rail trail.

National Grid’s correspondence detailed the company’s concerns with the proposed trail, saying: “National Grid has property rights along the right-of-way proposed to be used for the rail trail.”

Guerin further stated in the email that the company has significant concerns about the opposition from neighbors along the right-of-way, and that National Grid has been contacted repeatedly by abutters and their legal counsel.

“These residents have been very vocal about their opposition to the rail trail and until such time as their objections have been resolved, National Grid does not feel it can voluntarily enter into a license with the town for the proposed trail,” Guerin wrote.

“If, however, the town of Swampscott intends to take the rail trail by eminent domain, then National Grid would meet with you to discuss how to best ensure National Grid’s ability to continue to use and maintain the right-of-way for its electric facilities, so that we can continue to provide safe and reliable service to our customers,” Guerin continued.

Kane said the letter wasn’t surprising and was expected based on past discussions with National Grid. On Tuesday, at a Rail Trail Informational meeting, he said the town had a meeting with National Grid earlier this week.

“Based on the town’s research and discussions with National Grid over the past few years, we knew they wouldn’t be able to provide us a low- or no-cost license for the exact reason they stated in the email,” Kane said in an email. “This is the reason why the Board of Selectmen submitted a warrant article for Town Meeting for funding to instead go through the eminent domain process.

“This email substantiates our statements at the public meetings that the town can’t get a license,” Kane wrote. “This is a standard type of response and we look forward to working with our utility to bring this amenity to the town.”

Kane said $240,000 of the requested Town Meeting funds would be used to hire professionals for design and engineering costs. About $610,000 would be 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.

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

Thomas Palleria, an abutter of the proposed trail, said he owns land that the town may try to take by eminent domain. He said neighbors have been living under the threat of eminent domain for years.

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.

Palleria said he thinks that eminent domain proceedings against National Grid are going to increase the cost of acquiring the easement rights, potentially to an amount much larger than the funds requested at Town Meeting.

He said there are also potential issues with appraised values of land for abutters and legal fees that could push numbers beyond that $850,000 figure.

In addition, Palleria said there’s “no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” referring to additional funds needed for construction of the trail, which the town would have to go out and find after the design, engineering and acquisition phase. There’s no guarantee that the rail trail is even feasible, he added.

Other residents at the informational meeting agreed, with one saying that Town Meeting could be voting in $850,000 that could get the town nothing, referring to the trail. Some argued that the warrant article should be split, with Town Meeting only voting to allocate funds for the design and engineering phase, and drop asking for funds for acquisition of easement rights until the first phase was completed.

Kane, through a presentation on Tuesday night, identified grant opportunities that Swampscott could pursue for the trail construction, including the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation: Recreational Trails Program, Mass State Transportation Improvement Plan, MassDOT Complete Streets, Safe Routes to Schools, and nonprofit grant opportunities such as PeopleForBikes Community Grant Program and The Barr Foundation.

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.

Town officials meet 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.

Kane said the utility corridor is made up of 11 parcels of property, which make up a total area of about 500,000 square feet. The rail trail easement would be about 90,000 square feet, or 18 percent. National Grid pays property taxes for all 11 parcels, and paid $57,778 in FY17. Although National Grid pays the property taxes, not all 11 parcels are held in fee simple title by the company, meaning it doesn’t hold clear title on all of them.

Not all residents who spoke on Tuesday were against the trail.

Eric Bachman said one of the reasons he moved to Swampscott 10 years ago was for enticement of the rail trail. He said he imagines it as safer place kids can ride their bikes and as free exercise, or a way people can get out in nature.

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

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