Pictured is a plan for the Swampscott rail trail.
By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — Town Meeting members approved allocating funds allowing plans for a proposed rail trail to move forward last week, but a group of residents opposing the trail fought the vote and appear to have forced a special election.
Abutters to the proposed trail, who have been vocal in their opposition, and other residents, spearheaded a citizen’s petition, seeking to force the question brought before and approved at Town Meeting, to be placed on a ballot.
At Town Meeting by a 210-56 vote, members approved allocating $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 easement rights.
After the citizen’s petition garnered nearly 900 certified signatures, voters will likely be asked to allocate the funds during a town-wide election, with a date yet to be determined, according to Town Clerk Susan Duplin.
Officials have said $240,000 of the 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, or by donation/gift of the land.
The funds would not be for construction of the trail, which would be financed through donations, grants, and private funds, officials said.
Officials have said National Grid pays property taxes for the 11 parcels that make up the utility corridor, but doesn’t have clear title on all of them. Through a title process, numerous owners have been identified, which could include abutters.
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.
Paul Dwyer, a Swampscott resident who lives along the proposed trail, said the group became aware of a section in the town charter, that allows a challenge to the Town Meeting vote by means of a petition, and that could subsequently force a ballot initiative. He said when they didn’t win at Town Meeting, the group decided to start the petition drive.
The town charter (Section 2-6) reads that votes, except a vote to adjourn or authorize the borrowing of money in receipt of taxes for the current year, passed at Town Meeting don’t go into effect for five days.
The Town Meeting vote can be challenged within five days by filing a petition with the Board of Selectmen, asking that the question be submitted to the town’s voters. If five percent of the town’s registered voters sign the petition, the question in substantially the same language that was presented to Town Meeting, would appear on a ballot during a special election, according to the charter.
Dwyer said the response to the petition was overwhelming in town. He said people want to be heard on this issue, as opposed to just passing it through Town Meeting because it’s a lot of money to be spent. If the town sinks $850,000 into the project, and then can’t raise enough money to construct the trail, would more funds be requested at Town Meeting, he asked.
He said the other thing people have a problem with is eminent domain, which he said is a great thing to be used to build a new hospital or school, but not to build a recreational trail. Dwyer said people think eminent domain is the wrong thing to do to your neighbors.
“We’re very optimistic and enthused about the support that happened last week and continues to go on, so we hope that carries over to an election,” Dwyer said. “There are so many financial needs in this town that this trail is a luxury and a want more than anything else. We don’t need it, we can’t afford it, and there are many, many more priorities in town than a trail.”
Duplin said there were 10,662 registered voters as of week. The petition needed to garner 5 percent of those voters, or 533 signatures, to force the town-wide vote. She said there were 946 signatures submitted, and that 889 were certified. Other signatures were not certified for things such as illegible signature, some people signed who don’t live in town, and several people signed the petition twice, she added.
After the clerk’s office is done certifying the signatures, Duplin said there is a 48-hour window where anyone can file an objection to the signatures, which expires Wednesday at 5 p.m. She said the petition was handed in on Saturday, within five days of Town Meeting, and the signatures were certified on Monday. If objections are filed, she said the Board of Registrars would have to hold a hearing within 14 days.
Duplin said anyone can file objections for various reasons, but usually the reason is to reduce the number of certified signatures on the petition.
Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said she has consulted with Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald and some other members of the board, and doesn’t believe it’s wise to challenge the petition.
“I think it will go to a vote,” Dreeben said. “They clearly collected enough signatures and they have been certified so we’re not going to challenge it … People have a right to request a ballot measure for the town-wide vote and we’ll honor that.”
Dreeben said the board would set a date for the election, but the Selectmen have not met yet to discuss that. She said the Town Meeting vote was extremely clear on its approval to allocate the funds.
“I believe the Town Meeting is a good representation of the rest of the town, and I’m quite confident the town-wide vote will be consistent with the Town Meeting vote,” Dreeben said.
Duplin said an election usually costs the town between $10,000 to $12,000, for things such as ballot printing, poll workers and supplies.
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.