STONEHAM, MA - Town Meeting last week authorized the purchase of MTBA land along Maple Street for the Tri-Community Bikeway and further appropriated money likely needed to force two encroachers of the property.
In a unanimous vote, the assembly last Monday night passed Article 7, which permits the town administrator to enter into negotiations with the MBTA to acquire land where the railroad right-of-way extends down Maple Street towards the Woburn line near I-93.
According to Anthony Wilson, chairman of the town's Bikeway Committee, purchasing the approximate 910-foot long swath of property is one of just a handful of loose ends Stoneham needs to tie up in order to make the bikeway a reality.
"It's a small section of land we currently do not own. We have an 85-year lease from the MBTA. They've given us very favorable terms [to purchase it, rather than ink a new 99-year lease]," said Wilson, who suspected the sale price could be as low as $1, plus any legal fees associated with finalizing the transfer.
The recreational trail, the funding for which has been pursued for nearly 25 years, would run from Stoneham, through Woburn, and into Winchester. The largest section of the path would go through Stoneham, running from Recreation Park to Montvale Avenue, before crossing over towards Maple Street, where it will extend into Woburn.
This summer, proponents of the Tri-Community Bikeway announced that after years of failed lobbying efforts, the project had finally become approved for some $5.5 million in state and federal funding. Bids for the work will go out in Oct. of 2014, with construction scheduled to break ground the following spring.
From start to finish, the trail should take about two years to complete.
As part of Article 7, Stoneham will also retain the MBTA's legal rights in regards to forcing two encroachers to cease their use of the property and to return the area around the railroad tracks back to the condition that existed before those agreements were inked.
Last month, the Board of Selectmen met with the Bikeway Committee to discuss that issue, which jeopardizes the entire project, should Manison Street commercial property owners E.B. Rotondi and Sons and the Halchak Corp. not comply with those terms.
During that discussion, both abutters vowed to remove fill and building materials they deposited on the railroad right-of-way while leasing the land from the MBTA, but town officials have seen little progress.
"At this point, that fill has not been removed," Wilson told the Special Town Meeting audience last week. "Mr. Rotondi has moved a small amount…and has agreed to fulfill the terms of his contract. Mr. Halchak has not made any additional effort to comply."
According to Wilson, in the case of the two Manison Street businesses, the encroachment extends into the actual trail path itself, meaning the bikeway can't be built with the debris there.
Complicating the situation, both the MBTA and the Town of Stoneham have butted heads recently over who has the authority to order the encroachers to cease and desist their use of the land and to return it to its original condition.
According to Town Counsel William Solomon, the two property owners' leases with the MBTA specifically state that the land must be restored. If that work is not completed, the land use deals empower the state agency to take action at the two companies' expense to see that fill removed.
Those two leases expired sometime around last March, and per that agreement, that fill should have been removed within 60 days.
By transferring the rights contained in the legal agreements to Stoneham with the sale of the parcel, local officials intend to use that enforcement power to take action up to and including the filing of a complaint in Woburn District Court.
In a failed attempt to clearly spell out that legal authority, Bikeway Committee member Catherine Moore sought to amend Article 7, so that the proposal contained language outlining the town's right to recoup any legal fees incurred by enforcing the lease terms.
In 2009, Town Meeting addressed the issue of encroachment on other parts of the bikeway owned by Stoneham by granting local officials the authority to lease the land, thereby legalizing the use and spelling out the rules for vacating the space.
At that time, Moore tried to attach a condition to the measure that required all business owners to post a performance bond, to avoid exactly the type of issues happening along Maple Street. However, that amendment did not pass.
"When those contracts came up for discussion, I asked that a bond be required, so when it came time to come off that land, there was an economic incentive [for those using the space] to do so. At the time, [my suggestion] was shoved aside and people said, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of it,'" explained Moore, who didn't want any loose ends existing in the newest bikepath proposal.
The Ledge Street resident also wanted to specify that the fill must be removed from the entire width of the planned bikeway, which will in most places be close to 50-feet across.
With other members of the Bikeway Committee urging the assembly to reject Moore's amendment, the change failed by a significant margin.
In a separate action, Town Meeting also sanctioned the creation of a special fund for maintaining the bikeway moving forward. Money going into the account will come from businesses that continue to lease portions of the railroad right-of-way.
In 2009, when Town Meeting enabled the town administrator to execute those lease deals, citizens also passed a similar warrant article to establish the same kind of maintenance account. However, that measure, which required state approval, never made it before the state lawmakers for a vote before that legislative session concluded.
Over the past three years, Stoneham has collected some $54,000 in revenues through the leases.
"I can't answer that," responded Town Administrator David Ragucci, when asked by School Committee member David Maurer to explain why town officials didn't try to re-pass the proposal at Town Meeting in 2010, when it became clear the state legislature hadn't acted upon it.
"I don't know why it wasn't [re-submitted] It has been filed this year, and we're correcting the sins of the past. I do not control, nor can I say with any certainty that this article will pass the state legislature," the town administrator furthered.
State Rep. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) subsequently told citizens that he fully expects the special account to be endorsed by Beacon Hill pols this time around.
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