STONEHAM, MA - Jeopardizing the entire project, two encroachers on the future site of the Tri-Community Bikepath accomplished little to nothing to remove illegal debris from railroad tracks on Manison Street near I-93 and the Woburn line, the Board of Selectmen was told on Tuesday night.
In response to the update, the Selectmen agreed to ask both property owners to its next meeting on Oct. 8 for an explanation. Town Counsel William Solomon also indicated that now might be the time to begin discussing possible litigation against the businesses.
According to Dolly Wilson, a member of the town's Bike and Greenway Committee, commercial property owners E.B. Rotondi & Sons and the Halchak Corporation have done next to nothing to remove hundreds of yards of fill containing construction materials from the railroad right-of-way where the bike path is envisioned to begin snaking into Woburn, where it will then connect with land in Winchester.
"We have made some progress, but not as much as we would have liked. Mr. Rotondi has removed 30 to 40 percent of the fill; however, he has since moved away his equipment," said Wilson. "Mr. Halchak has removed maybe a foot of fill, not even to the area he agreed to [move it to]."
Last week, legal representatives for both Halchak and Rotondi vowed at another Selectmen's meeting to work with local officials to remove the debris and fully cooperate with town officials and representatives from the MBTA — the owners of the land — to ensure the job was done to satisfaction.
However, news that the bulk of the fill had yet to be removed was of little surprise to some audience members, who along with other bikeway proponents, have battled for years with the businessmen to get them to restore the land to its original condition.
"He's never going to do it," said Town Moderator Lawrence Means of E.B. Rotondi and Sons. "He hasn't removed any of it. I walked out to the property today. He just spread a ton of it out all over the place. One of the piles, which is bigger than this room, is probably six-feet high."
"I say take the hard ball approach. The hell with them. You think you'd see that in Winchester? You think you'd see that in Lexington or Melrose or Reading. Take him to court," Means went on.
The Selectmen heard the update on the businessmen's progress just hours after being warned by State Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) and State Representative Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) that the town stood to lose $5.5 million in state and federal funding for the greenway, should the railroad tracks remain uncleared.
"There's a long list of bikeway and roadway projects [waiting behind Stoneham, Winchester, and Woburn]. We don't want to do anything to jeopardize that project," Clark forewarned.
"If we don't have it all lined up, we could be at risk of losing that funding," Lewis chimed in.
For close to three decades, residents in all three communities have worked to build a bikeway and walking trail along the former railroad right-of-way tracks, designated in Stoneham as open space in 1992.
The bulk of that land where the federal and state dollars will be invested is situated in Stoneham, running from Recreation Park to Montvale Avenue and down to the Woburn line. The path will then run a course towards Horn Pond in Woburn, before then going into Winchester near Wedgemere Station.
With designs for the route now 75 percent complete, the last submission has already been shipped off to state officials, the Tri-Community Bikeway was put on the fast track for funding earlier this year after years of intensive lobbying.
Construction is tentatively scheduled to being on the project in the beginning of 2015.
For years, a number of abutting commercial proprietors, such as the owners of the Montvale Plaza, Cleveland Fence, and the Pleasant Street Crossing building, have used a portion of the space for a variety of functions, including parking spaces and storage areas.
In 2009, after ignoring those encroachments for years, the town tried to legitimize the practice by signing short-term leases with those businesses, with the understanding that once the bike path became shovel ready, the pacts would be terminated.
The MBTA, which owns the section near Maple Street, executed similar agreements with Halchak Corp. and E.B. Rotondi and Sons (though Stoneham technically leases the railroad right-of-way itself).
Presently, those designing the bike path have redrawn the planned routes in some areas of town, so that local businesses can continue to lease the land they use.
Those modifications do not increase the cost of building the bike path itself, and supporters of the changes envision that money from those continued leases could be set aside for the perpetual maintenance of the trails.
Currently, those leases, which expire soon, generate somewhere in the vicinity of $12,000. Town Meeting would have reauthorize any future agreements.
According to Bikeway Committee members, in the case of the two Manison Street businesses, the encroachment extends into the actual trail path itself, meaning the bikeway can't be build 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.
If the situation isn't corrected, the project itself stands to lose its $5.5 million in federal and state funding, because town officials must re-lease the land from the MBTA for a 99-year term. However, that lease cannot be signed, as long as the fill covers the railroad tracks.
© The Stoneham Independent