Concerns raised as Lynnfield awaits update on Rail Trail

MIDDLESEX - The general idea seems straight-forward: Accept millions of dollars in state and federal grants and convert abandoned and often unsightly swaths of railroad tracks into multi-community recreational trails.

In the perfect world, everybody wins.  Bikers and nature lovers have miles-upon-miles of paths to trek and no longer have to compete with motorists on roadways that are increasingly packed and congested.  

Businesses and merchants benefit as the bikeways and walking trails attract visitors who will frequent the community's restaurants and storefronts.  

And local officials, who don't have to spend a dime from municipal coffers for up-front construction costs, can create a recreational gem in their cities and towns without having to worry about whether the initiative will divert resources away from critical public safety and education system needs.  

But as divided Lynnfield residents have learned as they debate whether the Board of Selectmen should proceed with the proposed Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail, those perfect-world scenarios are too often blotted out by real-life complications.   

Later this month, Lynnfield's Board of Selectmen, who last spring received permission from Town Meeting to execute a required lease with the MBTA to obtain control the Rail Trail land, is expected to hear an update about the project from the communities' Recreational Path Committee.

With mention of the project first listed in a 2002 master plan developed by town officials, the 4.4-mile trail would utilize portions of the Boston & Maine's former Newburyport Railroad line between the Galvin Middle School in Wakefield and the vicinity of Lynnfield High's athletic fields near the Peabody line.  

About 2.5 miles of the recreational trails, which state transportation officials estimate will cost $9.5 million to construct, would be situated in Lynnfield. Based upon preliminary plans, portions of the greenway would be steered directly through Lynnfield Center, past various historical sites and public areas like the town's middle school, and through existing open-space and parkland properties like the Reedy Meadows conservation area

Of concern is whether the public project, which is expected to become eligible for state funding in 2020, will be fully paid for through state and federal grants, whether the MBTA agreement is the best way to approach the community's recreational goals, and what kinds of information about the project is included in 25 percent design documents submitted to the state by Woburn engineering firm WorldTech.     

"Per our assignment from the Board of Selectmen, our committee is working diligently to assemble a status report that will be provided to the [board] and all Lynnfield residents," said Recreational Committee member Randall Russell in a written statement.  

The Lynnfield advisory group has been asked to dig deeper into project details in light of growing opposition to the trails initiative from citizens and groups like NotforLynnfield, which during the April of 2017 Town Meeting assembly, fell just one-vote short of killing the project by yanking the Board of Selectmen's authority to lease the railroad tracks from the state.  

Amongst some of their top concerns: 

• That the recreational trails, in encouraging out-of-town visitors, will become a hotspot for vandalism and criminal activity and possibly give sex offenders a direct route to isolated areas abutting Lynnfield's school properties; 

• That the community will be straddled with unanticipated financial burdens associated with upkeep and maintenance of the recreational trails; 

• That the greenway, despite being dubbed as environmentally-friendly, could result in pollution and damage to sensitive wildlife and wetlands areas like the Reedy Meadows conservation area.

"The rail trail would connect Lynnfield to a community that is twice the size of Lynnfield but has ten times the amount of crime and seven times the number of Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders living or working in that community," reads excerpts from a position statement posted on NotforLynnfield's website.  "Pair this with the fact that the proposed trail would run directly behind two Lynnfield schools, including the Middle School, and would run quite close to the Summer Street Elementary School."

Proponents of the project insist those concerns, especially as they relate to fears about increased crime and declining property values, aren't supported by evidence collected by studying the impacts of similar initiatives.

They also argue the trails should increase public safety, as they will draw children and others away from public roadways, where pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to be involved to come into conflict with vehicular traffic.    

"A few abutters, in an attempt to create fear, cite crimes with no evidence from local and national studies," responded the Friends of Lynnfield Rail Trail group in a message before last spring's Town Meeting assembly.  "Remember this: Of the 20,000 plus miles of rail trials that have been built, not one has ever been closed…Can 107 towns that have built rail trails [and recreational] paths in Massachusetts be wrong?"   

For close to two decades now, a number of dedicated Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail proponents have excitedly watched as the project became closer to fruition.  With state transportation dollars being released in 2010 for initial design and engineering work, Woburn-based WorldTech Engineering was eventually hired to create a 25 percent design, which was circulated to local residents in Nov. of 2016.  

In the months ahead, Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) officials are expected to convene a public hearing to solicit feedback from citizens on WorldTech's initial submission.  

MassDOT is then expected to comment on the documents and outline changes which may be sought as part of a 75 percent design submission phase.   

According to state records, funding for the project is expected to be allocated in 2020, and construction on the greenways could begin as early as the winter of 2021.   

"Whether or not the project advances beyond the 25 percent stage will be based on decisions made by the residents of Lynnfield along with input from the Board of Selectmen," Russell recently explained.

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