MBTA leases rail bed to nonprofit for rail trail

By Anne O'Connor, aoconnor@nashobapub.com

TOWNSEND/GROTON -- Turning an unused rail bed into a nearly four-mile trail has been a long, uphill battle for a cadre of volunteers.

Last week Squannacook Greenways cleared a major hurdle in building the proposed trail paralleling the Squannacook River between Townsend and Groton. The path's owner, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, gave the nonprofit a 99-year lease.

This is the first time the MBTA has signed a lease with a nonprofit agency, said Bill Rideout, a board member of Squannacook Greenways.

The Greenways group was formed in 2011 to build the Squannacook River Rail Trail. Some of the same members that served on feasibility committees in Townsend and Groton are part of the nonprofit group.

"One of the reasons we took the nonprofit approach was the towns were leery of the cost and the environmental liability of signing the lease," he said.

Advocates of the Squannacook River Rail Trail started work back in 2002, spurred on by Al Futterman, the lands programs and outreach coordinator at the Nashua River Watershed Association.

Soon, two feasibility committees, one from each town, formed. The committees included both supporters and opponents of the trail. Among the topics under discussion in the joint meetings was how to secure the right to use the rail bed owned by the MBTA.

"This is where the story gets hairy," Rideout said.

When the advocates began looking into leasing the rail bed, the only groups that had signed leases with the MBTA were municipalities and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The towns did not want to assume any financial risk by signing a lease, so organizers looked to DCR.

They asked DCR about signing a lease with the MBTA and subleasing the land for the rail trail.

There was lots of great support from DCR and their commissioners, Rideout said, but that plan was not meant to be.

"It would have taken an act of legislation," he said. DCR's legal department found a glitch. The state agency could sublease the land to the Squannacook Greenways for only five years at a time.

DCR was not comfortable with this, Rideout said. Neither was his own committee.

The state did not leave local organizers trail in the lurch.

Tom LaRosa, DCR's general counsel, kept the rail trail in his sights. "Tom went way beyond the call of duty in doing legal research for us on abandoned freight rights that saved us a lot of time and money," Rideout said.

A year ago, in January 2014, local supporters went to Boston and met with the DCR, MBTA, Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Rep. Sheila Harrington. Representatives of Sens. Jen Flanagan and Eileen Donoghue were on-hand.

Support from town governments was in place. Townsend Town Administrator Andy Sheehan attended the critical meeting. The two Boards of Selectmen supplied letters of support.

"How the heck can we do this?" was the question on the table during that meeting Rideout said.

The MBTA suggested having an open bid for the right to build a rail trail on the track. This was a whole new idea, Rideout said.

The MBTA put out a request and Squannacook Greenways was the only bidder. For $99 they acquired a 99-year lease.

Squannacook got the word that the lease was a done deal at the end of the summer, but there were still a "whole bunch" of legal issues to work through, Rideout said.

The MBTA signed the lease on Jan. 26, 2015.

The money that Squannacook Greenways had in the bank helped in getting the lease, Rideout said. "I think it made the whole thing possible."

An $18,000 grant from the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts in 2013 and donations from board members gives the group a $25,000 kitty. The current estimate to construct the trail is $150,000.

The feasibility committees decided that building a stone-dust trail made the most sense. Everyone who toured the North Central Rail Trail, a stone-dust trail between Sterling and Barre owned by Wachusett Greenways was impressed, Rideout said.

Based on input from abutters and residents, they made some adaptations to the proposed path in Townsend, moving it out onto a sidewalk instead of remaining between the Historical Society and the river. This change keeps the path off the society's property and will allow trail users to use the traffic lights at South Road and Route 119.

The Greenways is ready to move into another phase of existence. Now that the lease is secure, they will start a capital campaign which will include applying for additional grants.

Another item on the agenda is abutter outreach. The committee budgeted 20 percent of the construction estimate, $30,000, for privacy fencing. "We realize it's a serious concern," Rideout said. Sections of the right-of-way run between houses and the river.

Then comes the permitting and design phase. After 12 years of work, the trail committee hopes to be start building in 2016.


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