Rail to trail? Voters may decide

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MANCHESTER — Residents could be asked this spring whether or not the town should purchase a former railbed in order to make it a trail.

The Selectboard on Tuesday discussed placing a nonbinding article on March's annual Town Meeting as a way to gauge residents' support either way.

Chairman Ivan Beattie said the property owner, Old Railroad Bed LLC, approached the town about the possibility of the town purchasing the old railbed. The land, formerly owned by OMYA Inc., runs less than two miles from the intersection of North and Squires roads to the area of Riley Rink. Manchester developer William Drunsic is co-owner of the LLC.

Beattie and Town Manager John O'Keefe said the town would be eligible for state and federal grants to fund the project, but the LLC would not.

Representatives from Old Railroad Bed were not present Tuesday, but numerous residents turned out to the meeting to speak.

Those opposed were worried the trail would be intrusive to abutting homeowners and affect home values. Those in favor said the trail would complement the town's master plan, which encourages recreational activities, and could be an important piece of the town's tourism economy.

Beattie said a "ballpark" cost to the town for the purchase would be $70,000. Details such as total cost, a time line and logistics like how the trail would be policed are still unknown.

The rail line began operation by the Manchester, Dorset & Granville Railroad Company in 1904. Its main function was moving marble from quarries in Dorset to Manchester, where it was shipped elsewhere across the nation. By 1934 all operations had ceased and the railroad tracks were removed. Vermont Marble merged with OMYA Inc. in 1992, which then sold the railroad bed to Drunsic's company for $34,614 in 2009.

In a suit filed in Vermont Superior Court Civil Division, several defendants, including abutters, claimed that Old Railroad Bed did not own the property because it would have reverted back to its original ownership status when it stopped being a railroad. The court ruled in 2014 that the defendants had not presented enough evidence to show the land had been acquired in that fashion.

Residents in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, including some abutters of the proposed trail, spoke against the proposal.

One abutter was Larry Kukacka of Beattie Lane, who said he was also representing Don and Eleanor Dykes, two of the case's defendants.

Kukacka said the Dykes purchased the subdivided lot in the mid 1990s. They paid over $10,000 last spring to move their garage off of the right of way after a co-owner said it would otherwise be torn down.

The bike path would cross their driveway, he said, and they have concerns over safety and that the path could be a disturbance.

"Would anyone want to have a bike path 50 feet from their front door, with noise, trash and things like that," Kukacka asked.

But resident Alan Benoit, who said he was a cyclist himself, argued the trail is desirable from a tourism and real estate perspective.

"People are looking for this," he said. "Having a house on or near a rail trail or bike path is very desirable. Ask any realtor across the country."

Amy and Robin Verner, former bike shop owners and members of the town's Biking Center and Destination Task Force, said the path would provide a safe place for bicyclists. It would complement other efforts from the task force, they said, including a bike repair station, road signs and markings, a road map of bike routes. They pointed to the town's master plan, which states that such development should be incorporated into future development.

Selectboard member Steve Nichols expressed a concern over the region's drug problem and stated a man had told him about finding a used hypodermic needle.

"To me this revolves around creating different locations for people to hang out," he said.

Fern Wagner disagreed.

"I think if you create recreation for young adults, they're less likely to get involved in drugs," she said.

Other residents voiced concern over liability if someone was hurt on the trail and questioned how it would be maintained, and one woman was worried that trail use could disturb wildlife.

Beattie said he was sensitive to how intrusive the trail could be to someone who has lived in that area for years.

"We're all part of the same community," he said. "Certainly as neighbors and community members we can try to work together and make it as palatable as we can, whatever happens."

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979


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