Published in the April 26, 2017 edition
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
LYNNFIELD — One vote.
After all the presentations made, forums held, handwringing, haggling and newspaper letter-writing campaigns from supporters and opponents over the past few months, it all came down to just one vote.
This is why it is said that every vote counts, every time.
Article 24 on the annual Town Meeting warrant passed by the simplest of majorities on a hand count of 342 to 341 late into the night of a nearly 4 1/2 hour meeting during which 29 articles were brought before the voters.
Passage of this citizens’ petition means the Board of Selectmen would be authorized to enter into a lease of up to 99 years with the MBTA “in the name of and on behalf of the town” for the purposes of “establishing, constructing, operating and maintaining a multi-use rail trail…for non-motorized transportation, open space and recreation purposes,” both active and passive.
This lease authorization would affect only the Lynnfield portion (about 2.5 miles) of the 4.4 mile trail that would link with Wakefield. This question was not included in the upcoming Wakefield Town Meeting so the earliest it would likely be addressed is Wakefield’s fall Town Meeting.
Secret ballot discussed
Although the measure ultimately passed, proponents and opponents had multiple strategies available on how best to win over the support of voters to their point of view. Three Power Point presentations were given, one each by the Friends of the Lynnfield Rail Trail, Citizens of Lynnfield Against the Rail Trail, and the Recreational Path Committee (RPC), the impartial ad hoc subcommittee appointed eight weeks ago by the selectmen to revive and expand it.
Lynnfield Town Moderator Arthur Bourque explained to the voters who packed both the LMS auditorium and the over 200 voters who filled the overflow room in the school cafeteria that due to the potential request for a secret ballot when it came time to vote on the rail trail article that the Town Clerk and her assistants would be prepared to process such votes efficiently.
It would have required all voters to file out of their seats row by row “as if they were going to Communion at a Catholic Church,” Bourque said, exiting out one set of doors where they would show their voter card to get it checked off and receive their secret ballot with a “yes” and a “no” on it. Each voter would tear off the vote he or she wanted to make, deposit it in a ballot box and discard the unused half in the trash, and then file back into their seats through another set of doors.
Bourque said the Town Clerk and her staff would then go to another room where each vote would be counted under the observation of witnesses from both sides of the issue. Since this would take about 30 minutes, Bourque said he would call for Article 24 to be tabled temporarily to enable the business of the Town Meeting to continue.
As a precursor to the acrimony surrounding the issue, a request was made prior to the start of the Town Meeting to admit as a non-voter a non-resident attorney, William J. Squires III, who had been hired by the Citizens of Lynnfield Against the Rail Trail. Squires requested to also be allowed to speak at the Town Meeting. Both requests were put to a hand count. His request to be admitted passed 299-120. His request to speak on this issue was allowed but by a smaller margin, 237-201.
Vote to reconsider fails
Immediately after the passage of Article 24, by one vote, to the elation of the proponents and the shock of the opponents, rail trail advocate Patrick Curley, a volunteer attorney with the Friends of the Lynnfield Rail Trail, stood to speak for the prevailing side of the issue. He immediately requested that the meeting vote to reconsider the article, in the hope that this request would fail. This is a strategy allowed under Roberts Rules of Order used at Town Meeting, Bourque said, to prevent an article from being reconsidered later in the meeting when the crowd thinned out believing the matter was settled.
This also went to a hand count and the vote not to reconsider Article 24 passed by a margin of 312-281, an indication that many people had already left the meeting.
25% plan submitted to MassDOT
The trail, known as the Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail, is currently engineered at the 25 percent completion stage and proponents, such as the Friends of the Lynnfield Rail Trail, maintain that a public show of support for the trail to MassDOT at this stage is necessary for the town to access all $7.1M in state funding that has been set aside for this purpose or the town runs the risk of those funds being re-allocated to another town’s trails that has demonstrated support.
During his pro-trail presentation, Curley, of 26 Locksley Road, emphasized the inclusiveness of the trail in enabling people of all ages and abilities to use it, noting that it would be ADA compliant. His slide show featured photos of youngsters in wheelchairs as well as the elderly enjoying the access to a fully accessible trail surrounded by woods that they otherwise would not have the ability to navigate on their own.
Curley also addressed some of the issues raised by the opponents with a slide entitled: What’s all the hysteria about?
Among the variety of questions raised to date, Curley stated that the MBTA, not the abutters, own the rail corridor in “fee simple.” He stated that both national and local studies “prove” rail trails “do not bring crime.” With over 100 rail trails in the state for enthusiasts to utilize, the advocates believe outside traffic generation to the trail will be minimal.
Curley addressed the environmental concerns by stating that the trail will be built “in compliance with the strictest environmental laws” and that the quiet usage of the trail will “complement” Reedy Meadow while the boardwalk “will be built to withstand fire” and the town will be protected against claims of contamination of the meadow by an environmental liability insurance policy while the town’s liability for claims of injury by users will be “capped” just as it is for the town’s other parks.
To the point made that the town’s current roads and sidewalks are “good enough” to serve as recreational paths, Curley said the increased incidences of “distracted drivers” currently puts “everyone at risk of injury or death.”
Robert Almy, 2 Wyman Way, and a member of the RPC, noted in his portion of the Power Point that Article 24 would allow the selectmen to enter into such a lease with the MBTA “at a time of their choosing.” He added that voting in favor of it “does not bind the selectmen to approve any project in the future,” nor does it bind the town to allocate any funding or commit the town “to any particular approach.”
Selectmen do not recommend
Selectman Dick Dalton, in stating his case for voting along with fellow Selectman Phil Crawford for the board not to recommend passage of the article at this time, said it was premature to solicit the town’s support for the project at the 25 percent stage; however, this does not mean that the selectmen would never support the rail trail in the future.
Based on the meetings Dalton attended at the state level where the distribution of State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) funds were discussed for all types of transportation projects, the earliest Lynnfield could expect to see any funding for this project would be 2021.
Selectmen Chairman Chris Barrett recused himself from all discussions on the rail trail at the board’s meetings because his sister is an abutter.
Speaking for himself, Dalton stated that his vote not to recommend Article 24 was out of concern for the “lack of process and due diligence associated with this article.” Dalton said that after attending a meeting of the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization Board and DOT it was apparent to him that this trail “is not only competing against numerous other rail trail projects, but against some critical transportation projects that deal with dangerous intersections and are shovel ready.” He left that meeting believing this project is a “low priority” at that state level.
Dalton said he had followed up with the “Transportation Improvement Program Manager at the MPO and the Rail Trail Project Manager at DOT. I was able to confirm with them that the project is now scheduled for 2021, not 2018 and nothing we do at this point impacts that scheduling decision.”
He added, “What I also discovered, more importantly, is per the DOT, the estimated total construction cost is $9,664,869. That is reported in a public document that I obtained entitled ‘Contract Advertising And Planning Estimator.’ This document has never been presented to the Board of Selectmen. Nor has the Preliminary Design Estimate prepared by the engineering firm which totals over $8 million.”
“Based on the substantial differences between the earmarked funds and the cost estimates, I would say that there is a significant amount of due diligence to do before we can comfortably state that we fully understand the potential impacts of this project,” Dalton said.
Some opponents expressed their opposition to never build this trail for a variety of reasons, including the disruptions it would pose to the flow of traffic at required pedestrian crossings with lights on two main roads (Summer Street near the Summer Street School and at Pillings Pond Road); the loss of privacy of direct abutters; the unknown effect of the trail on the value of the homes that abut it; the potential environmental impact or further degradation of the Reedy Meadow, through which the trail will pass for six-tenths of a mile; access to the trail for emergency personnel and the debate over whether crime would increase.
A member of the Citizens of Lynnfield Against the Rail Trail presented a Power Point of “Myths vs Facts” based on the unknown aspects of the plan at the 25 percent completion stage. One slide stated that it is a “myth” that 100 percent of the costs will be borne by the state and federal government, stating it is “unclear what the $7.1M will cover and more importantly, what it will not cover” and that the $500,000 state grant has been “exhausted” to get the plan to this stage with another $500,000 to $600,000 needed to “finish the design phase.”
One slide showed the results of a 2014 survey of the “Rails-to-Trails Conservancy” which asked about “ongoing problem activities” on trails and among those cited, 71 percent checked “vandalism,” 49 percent checked “dumping,” 28 percent cited “after hours use” and 21 percent cited “crimes against property,” 17 percent cited “trespass” and 12 percent cited “crimes against persons.” Another slide included clips of crimes appearing in the news on trails in the communities of Marblehead, Newburyport, Arlington, Chelmsford, Milford and Fall River.
The environmental damage done during the surveying of the trail, where trees that had grown up between the rails during the 20 or so years since the trains have no longer used the rails had been cut down and left behind, was also discussed by the opponent. Reedy Meadow was cited as a “town treasure” that serves as a protection and major water retention area for the Saugus River Watershed, which provides drinking water to Lynn. As the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the state, the opponent’s slide indicated that Reedy Meadow is on Mass. Audubon’s list of important bird areas and is a Natural National Landmark of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
When it was time for the vote, rail trail proponent Mark McDonough called for a secret ballot to be used, stating, “I have long been intimidated” by the opponents of the rail trail question, to which Bourque replied, “I find it hard to believe that you are intimidated by anybody, Mr. McDonough.”
The request for a secret ballot failed on a voice vote. The voter cards were held up instead and counted by the appointed tabulators, four in the auditorium and one in the cafe, who each used hand clickers to keep track as they tallied the rows of raised hands.