Lynnfield’s citizens later this month will cast the latest do-or-die decision regarding the future of the proposed multi-million dollar Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail-Trail project.
Late last month, the town’s Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to convene a Special Town Meeting on Sept. 26, when voters will determine whether the community will appropriate roughly $350,000 to finish the design of the multi-purpose recreation trail.
Potentially at risk is the future of the entire 4.4-mile walking trail and the estimated $10.3 million in state and federal funding that has been secured to construct it. According to representatives from the Friends of the Lynnfield Rail Trail, abandoning the decades-long undertaking due to concerns over such a small amount of money is counterintuitive - especially since Town Administrator Robert Dolan has acknowledged the funding is available.
“The FinCom and Town Administrator Rob Dolan have identified 2 existing town accounts that they would draw upon for these final design fees. There are sufficient funds in these town accounts. There would be no new taxes or monies borrowed,” the advocacy group explained in a social media post last month, when Finance Committee officials endorsed the proposal.
The Town Meeting gathering is being scheduled after rail-trail activists circulated a citizen petition calling upon the selectmen to convene the assembly. In total, the group collected some 300 signatures from their neighbors.
In mid-August, the town’s Finance Committee, following hours of debate over the merits of the Town Meeting warrant article, agreed to support the citizen’s petition in an 8-to-2 vote. During a subsequent gathering last Wednesday, Selectmen Chair Philip Crawford advised the public that he and his colleagues will conduct their own deliberations on Sept. 9.
“We had a petition presented to the board and to Town Hall for a special Town Meeting. So as of tonight, we’re opening the warrant,” said Crawford, explaining greenway advocates had gathered enough signatures to meet Lynnfield’s charter requirements. “This article will be presented to us at [our next meeting], and we’ll have a full conversation with the public at that time.”
Like the recently opened Tri-Community Greenway that snakes through Stoneham, Woburn, and Winchester, the Wakefield-Lynnfield project would create a walking and biking path along the abandoned Boston & Maine Railroad tracks that were once used to ferry passengers and cargo towards Newburyport.
Beginning by the Galvin Middle School in Wakefield, the proposed 12-foot wide walking trail would head northbound into Lynnfield to the Peabody line, where it may eventually connect to a series of other recreational trails that run all the way to Salisbury near the New Hampshire border.
In total, the local trails would extend for 4.4 miles, with 1.9 miles being situated in Wakefield and 2.5 miles running through Lynnfield. If connected to other rail-trail corridors, users of the Wakefield-Lynnfield trail could conceivably use the pathway to reach a host of other communities, including Peabody, Danvers, Georgetown, Newburyport, and Salisbury.
The Wakefield spur of the rail-trail project has long enjoyed the support of the neighboring town’s citizens and local leaders. However, a significant number of detractors have emerged in Lynnfield to voice a host of concerns, including questions about how the town will foot the bill associated with maintaining the trails and whether the pathway will cause a spike in home burglaries and similar crimes.
In recent years, Wakefield’s officials, noting the project’s controversial status in Lynnfield, have contended they will go it alone on the trails, should their neighbors reject the proposal.
However, over the past few months, Lynnfield’s rail-trail proponents had celebrated a number of victories, including an April election in which voters confirmed their support of the project through a non-binding referendum question.
Specifically, during municipal elections this spring, an estimated 53 percent of voters – or roughly 1,860 people - cast a ballot in favor of the Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail-Trail project. That April victory at the polls came about a month after officials from the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) hosted a public hearing to review the project’s 25 percent design documents.
The $350,000 now being sought for the rail-trail project would foot Lynnfield’s portion of the remaining design costs. According to town officials, if the community rejects the Town Meeting initiative later this month, the community will likely lose access to $100,000 in state grants that could be utilized to offset the design price tag.
It is also possible that both Wakefield and Lynnfield may gain access to another $500,000 in grant funding, but that money is not expected to be immediately available.
Earlier this spring, Lynnfield’s Recreation Path Committee, an advisory group formed to study the rail-trail project, released a three-page report that answered a number of financial questions about the proposed 12-foot wide walkway.
In that analysis, committee members explained that besides the design funding, Lynnfield’s voters might also be asked to foot several other expenses, including:
· An estimated $6,000 bill associated with obtaining temporary easements during the construction phase of the project;
· A $50,000 expense that would be incurred by obtaining “environmental hazard” insurance to cover any potential pollution cleanup liabilities along the old railroad property;
· An annual $8,000 maintenance cost;
· And the undetermined expense of replacing the “boardwalk” section of the rail-trail by the Reedy Meadow area, where an elevated walkway would likely be built over wetlands.