Hundreds turn out in opposition of proposed Charlestown railroad bypass

Hundreds turn out in opposition of proposed Charlestown railroad bypass

Record-Journal


CHARLESTOWN — Hundreds of residents packed the Charlestown Elementary School gym Tuesday night to voice strong opposition to a Federal Railroad Administration bypass proposal that would reroute railroad tracks through private property and preserved land.

About 400 people attended the meeting, which was organized by the Charlestown Town Council to gather comments as part of the town’s formal response to the railroad agency’s Tier 1 Final Environmental Statement on its NEC Future plan for the Northeast Corridor.

The $130 billion, 30-year railroad administration proposal is intended to cut travel time between Washington, D.C., and Boston by creating infrastructure for high-speed trains that would travel up to 220 mph. It would reduce travel time between New York and Boston by approximately 45 minutes. Across southern New England, the plan has raised concerns about negative economic and environmental impacts, however.

“Make it go away, no reason to go to Tier Two — we’re telling you, we don’t want it,” Kim Coulter, co-owner of Stoney Hill Cattle Farm in Charlestown, said as the audience erupted into applause.

Coulter said that under the Tier 2 proposal, the train tracks would bisect her farm and render some acreage unusable, destroying at least one family home on the site. The farm has been in her family for four generations and the land is irreplaceable, she said.

“Where are you going to get more land? How are you going to repair the land after you destroy it?” she asked.

Fierce resistance

The push-back in Rhode Island comes months after the initial reaction in Connecticut. The nonprofit SECoast circulated a petition in August urging the feds to scuttle the bypass, citing severe potential effects on Old Lyme, Mystic and Westerly.

In September, Amtrak closed the Westerly train station building, prompting questions about the future of the stop. After both Westerly and Stonington were omitted from the list of consulting parties on the project, the Westerly Town Council directed Town Manager Derrik Kennedy to collaborate with Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons and Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Konicki to research the project.

The Westerly Land Trust has expressed apprehension because the tracks would cut through two of its land holdings, Grills Preserve and Riverwood. In South Kingstown, questions have also arisen about filling in wetlands to accommodate track construction in the Great Swamp Management Area.

As the meeting began, Town Council President Virginia Lee thanked state and local officials who had come, including representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Jack. Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Rep. James Langevin. State Sens. Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly) and Elaine Morgan (R-Hopkinton) and state Rep. Blake Filippi (R-Block Island) were in attendance, all three of whom spoke in opposition to the bypass. The office of Gov. Gina Raimondo did not send a representative.

Director of Business Development Janet Campbell-Lorenc and company spokesperson Mike Tolbert were in attendance representing Amtrak.

Outreach questions

While the councilors only learned of the project in mid-December, former Town Council President Thomas Gentz said he received communication about the project over a year ago, but the information showed a track route he believed would not affect Charlestown.

“In November 2015, I received a letter from the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, along with a 12-page, four-color executive summary. When I read the executive summary, it showed the proposed tracks entering Rhode Island about 10 miles north of Westerly center, running north of the existing track through Charlestown, and rejoining the existing tracks,” he said. “As the map indicates, this route would appear to pose no threat to Charlestown.”

Pointing to a purple sticky note protruding from the 6-inch-thick printout of the project’s environmental impact statement, he demonstrated that Charlestown was mentioned only once in the document.

Gentz said the railroad administration was “indifferent to the fact that its outreach effort completely failed to elicit comments from any town in South County,” and said the organization needed to answer for why it didn’t attempt a more effective outreach program. His message to the railroad administration was to keep Amtrak within its current right of way instead of building new tracks.

Gregory Stroud, director of special projects at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and a former executive director of SECoast, urged Charlestown residents to take action during the Tier I phase, which comprises selecting the track routes. Stroud has worked to oppose the bypass project in Connecticut for much of the past year.

“At Tier II, changes are marginal, and we want to avoid that stage,” he said.

Environmental toll

Daniel Mackay, executive director for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said there was unanimous opposition to the bypass from every town it would affect and urged that it be dropped from the project.

“The rest of the plan can move forward without the bypass,” he said. “There are no objections to other parts of the plan, so take this piece out.”

The project would also bisect the Nature Conservancy’s Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve and impact other conservation parcels, prompting concern from Charlestown Land Trust President Karen Jarret.

“There are legally binding conservation easements and management plans attached to these conserved properties with the intent of preservation in perpetuity — perpetuity means forever and these are protected on the basis of common trust and not to be violated,” she said.

Resident Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, said she and her family were against the project on multiple levels.

“As a Narragansett tribal citizen we say no ... because it destroys wetlands, it invades our tribal land. We’ve had enough taken from us already, we’d like to keep what we do have — and we don’t want our natural resources destroyed so there’s less hunting, fishing, gathering,” she said.

Frances Topping, a member of the Charlestown Planning Commission, said the project could also place the town’s dependence on wells for drinking water at risk. She said the plan would require much land disturbance and potentially cause contamination of aquifers and groundwater that would be “deleterious to our health.”

‘A bad plan’

Concern over the impact of the project has created a deep sense of unease for resident Gary Tedeschi, who said he recently started building a home that could be in the path of the rerouted tracks.

“Why am I just finding out the train will go through the foundation I just poured a month-and-a-half ago?” he asked. “We’re building our retirement home and now I have to worry for the next 20 or 30 years whether I will see a train coming through my backyard.”

Adding to residents’ trepidation was Stroud’s comment that property values are already dropping by as much as 25 percent in sections of Old Lyme where the project has been proposed.

After all the residents’ comments were heard, the Town Council passed a resolution to prepare a letter to the railroad administration in opposition to the bypass, along with a request for an extension of the comment period to April 1.

Lee said she was grateful to the citizens for their participation.

“Everybody had really different perspectives to offer and it kept adding to the reasons why this should be opposed and we should not go to Tier II,” she said. “It’s a bad plan. It’s not acceptable to our town to have any deviation off of the current tracks.”

Residents who were unable to attend are encouraged to send comments to amtrak-comments@charlestownri.org before Jan. 31. Links to proposal documents are available online at charlestownri.org.

chewitt@thewesterlysun.com




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