Posted on: Wednesday, September 25, 2019

By DAN TOMASELLO

LYNNFIELD — The latest round in the ongoing fight over the controversial Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail will commence during the Special Town Meeting on Thursday.

The Friends of the Lynnfield Rail Trail submitted a citizens’ petition last month requesting a Special Town Meeting in order to appropriate $348,000 to cover the $10 million rail trail’s final design cost. There are no other articles appearing at the Special Town Meeting, which will be held on Thursday, Sept. 26, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Lynnfield Middle School auditorium.

A quorum of 175 voters is needed in order to hold the session and vote on the requested appropriation.

Locksley Road resident Patrick Curley recently told the Board of Selectmen the Friends crafted the warrant article because the advocacy group believes the state will not finance the rail trail’s final design even though a $500,000 earmark for the design was included in a 2018 Environmental Bond Bill. He also said the town needs to act before a $100,000 reversible grant the town received from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation expires on July 1, 2020. He said the grant will reduce the final design’s price tag to $248,000.

The Special Town Meeting vote will take place five months after voters approved a non-binding referendum that supported moving forward with the Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail 1,859 votes to 1,679 votes during the April Town Election. The Special Town Meeting will also take place two-and-a-half years after the April 2017 Town Meeting approved a citizens’ petition authorizing the Board of Selectmen to enter into a 99-year lease with the MBTA by a 342-341 vote.

The proposed Wakefield-Lynnfield Rail Trail would begin at the Main Street and Bennett Street intersection in Wakefield near the Galvin Middle School, extend north through Lynnfield and would go to the Peabody line. A portion of the rail trail would go through Reedy Meadow via an elevated boardwalk. The Wakefield component of the trail would be 1.8 miles while Lynnfield’s would be 2.5 miles.

Similar to recent Town Meetings, electronic check-in and electronic voting will be used for the Special Town Meeting on Sept. 26. Residents are encouraged to check in between 6 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. in order to allow the quorum to be met and the meeting to begin at 7 p.m. One must be present at the meeting to vote because absentee voting at town meetings is prohibited.

“Votes will be recorded by an electronic clicker,” said Town Moderator Joseph Markey in a recent interview with the Villager. “The two buttons that are utilized on the clicker are number 1 and number 2. To vote yes, press number 1. To vote no, press number 2. The last vote that is entered will be registered as your vote. Voting is open for 20 seconds upon the moderator calling for a vote.”

While most of the Town Meeting rules are similar to previous years, Markey has implemented a new rule pertaining to residents and representatives who have a financial interest associated with a warrant article. Rail trail abutters and abutters to future projects that will be presented to Town Meeting will be required to disclose that information to the legislative body going forward including Thursday.

If the warrant article passes, Town Administrator Rob Dolan said the rail trail’s final design would be paid for by funds in the Overlay Account, which has a $1,040,265 balance. He said the proposed appropriation will not have a negative effect on the town’s fiscal year 2020 operating or capital budgets.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will be paying for the rail trail’s construction costs.

Supporters of the project have argued the rail trail will provide recreational opportunities for residents in both Lynnfield and Wakefield and would be a safer way for pedestrians and cyclists to travel. Supporters have also argued building the trail with state funds is a good opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.

The project’s opponents have argued the rail trail will lead to more crime, environmental problems, increased maintenance costs and traffic. Rail trail opponents have also taken issue with the Friends’ proposal to allocate money for the rail trail’s final design.

In addition to separating residents into two different camps, the Friends’ proposal to allocate $348,000 for the rail trail’s final design has also divided local boards in town. The Finance Committee voted 8-2 to support the Friends’ warrant article last month.

“This opportunity looks extremely beneficial for the town,” said Finance Committee Vice Chairman Tom Kayola. “Obviously it’s an emotional subject and you cannot put a dollar amount on quality life. Some people are passionately for it and some people are passionately against it. We’ll see how the town votes at Town Meeting. This is an opportunity to get our skin in the game and signal to the state that we want to move forward with this project. From a financial perspective, it makes sense for the town.”

The Recreational Path Committee has also come out in favor of the proposed warrant article. In a Letter to the Editor sent to the Villager, RPC Chairman Gerard Noumi noted the committee voted last March to “move forward with the design phase so that residents can see the complete engineering documents” in order to “allow the residents to see how their properties would be affected.”

“The Lynnfield Finance Committee voted in favor of the Special Town Meeting warrant item allocating the funds for the final engineering designs,” said Noumi. “The current timing would allow Lynnfield to take advantage of a $100,000 state grant that has an upcoming expiration date. The Finance Committee’s position aligns with the Recreational Path Committee’s recommendation, as it allows the community to see the final design and answer further questions about the project during the permitting phase.”

While the FinCom and RPC have come out in support of the warrant article, Board of Selectmen Chairman Phil Crawford and Selectman Dick Dalton voted not to recommend the article. Both selectmen said they preferred waiting until later this fiscal year to see if the $500,000 earmark included in the Environmental Bond bill gets released.

“It would be much more prudent to see what we get from the state and then know how much we have to raise,” said Crawford during a recent meeting.

Dalton agreed.

“I don’t see the sense of urgency when this is slotted for 2024,” said Dalton. “I think the argument that this needs to be done right now falls short. I think we need to wait and see. The governor has been very supportive of the rail trail concept. He is a Republican and our representative is the minority leader. I think we have a very good chance to get state funding.”

In an interview with the Villager, Crawford said, “If the warrant article fails, it won’t kill the rail trail.”

“The funding request will remain in place until it gets funded, which will hopefully happen in May,” said Crawford.

Dalton echoed Crawford’s point of view.

“To me, the vote is not for or against the rail trail,” said Dalton in an interview with the Villager. “It’s a vote to decide how we go ahead to finance this project if in fact it goes forward.”

Selectman Chris Barrett recused himself from voting on the warrant article because his sister lives in close proximity to the proposed rail trail.

The last Special Town Meeting took place in June 2014, which is when voters overwhelmingly approved purchasing Centre Farm.