Staff Writer

TOWNSEND -- A 99-year lease on land owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority for a rail-to-trail project is free, according to attorney Stephen Winslow of Brown & Green LLC. But the cost to protect the town from liability along the new Rail Trail, should contamination be found, could exceed $25,000.

The Board of Selectmen met with Winslow and members of the Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee on Dec. 5, to discuss the environmental liability should the town vote to sign the lease.

Recent legislation, passed with help from Sen. Pamela Resor (D-Acton), allots $500,000 in matching grants to towns to help pay for a $3 million per incident insurance policy, said Winslow. The insurance, if purchased, releases the town from a lease provision indemnifying the MBTA of all liability for possible contamination, he said. Winslow projects the annual premium to be $50,000, half of which the state would pay with the grant.

Committee Chairman Steven Meehan, early on, asked for the board's vote of support for the Rail Trail project.

"I think it's important to let the public know that the project still has the backing of the board," he said.

The selectmen have supported the committee's study of the Squannacook River Rail Trail, so long as it doesn't cost the town money, said Selectman David Chenelle.

Environmental concerns drove the discussion, in that the MBTA's use of chemicals along the rail lines may have contaminated the soil. Testing for contaminants along the rail beds can only be done after the lease is signed, Winslow noted, and remediation, at least of the top soil, would be required if the Department of Environmental Protection reports any contaminants in the rail ties or soil.

The policy, if purchased, carries a $50,000 deductible for unexpected occurrences, although Winslow did not know whether it applies per incident.

Resident Elaine Martin handed the selectmen a memo from Sen. Resor's office that states the deductible does indeed apply per incident.

Speaking in opposition, Martin said the town can hardly raise money for its 275th anniversary celebration, never mind paying for Rail Trail costs, including environmental insurance.

More than 30 residents attended the meeting, and one spoke in support of the committee's work.

School Street resident Ward Clark said the committee is doing everything it can to defray costs to the town. The committee has announced its commitment to locating grant money, and recently got the project listed on the state's Transportation Improvement Plan.

"I'm hearing that they're behaving responsibly," Clark said.

"Trails can be as complicated as building a road," Winslow said. "You're going to find issues that come up."

The MBTA allows the town to use the land, but if environmental problems arise then the town has to figure out how to pay for remediation. The town has to take the risk to complete the project, he said.

"Gaining control of the land is the most essential part and ingredient of building a trail," said Winslow. Afterward, there are a lot of ways to pay for building the actual trail, he said, such as federal and state grants, and the committee has done a great job locating fund sources.

"If there is any cost to the town it will not be accepted," Vice Chairman Maureen Denig warned. However, the selectmen agreed to allow the committee to continue its work toward determining project feasibility.

Chairman Robert Plamondon said he would not entertain spending any tax money on the Rail Trail project, but the committee does deserve a "fighting chance to be creative" in locating funds.

"The last thing I want to do is put the town in a financial or legal bind," he said.

A town meeting vote is required to sign the lease, Denig noted, so there is no danger that the lease will be implemented without the voters' knowledge and support.