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Southampton voters overwhelmingly approve rail bed purchase for recreational trail

SOUTHAMPTON — Residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to allow the town to purchase a 4.25-mile stretch of rail bed that town officials hope to transform into a recreational trail.

With 533 voters, it was standing room only in the William E. Norris School cafeteria for the special Town Meeting. Town Clerk Eileen Couture said it was the highest attendance since the July 17, 1996, meeting at which Southampton voters said no to creating a recreational trail on the unused rail corridor.

But on Tuesday, 81 percent of residents in attendance voted to allow the project to move forward.

With a vote of 432-101, residents directed the town to negotiate with the Pioneer Valley Railroad to purchase the rail bed for $340,000. The purchase is contingent on the town receiving a state grant that would reimburse it for two-thirds of the cost. As part of the article voters approved, the remaining $115,600 would come from Community Preservation Act funds. Voters also approved $39,500 from CPA funds to cover costs related to the land acquisition, such as legal fees.

“I’m just delighted,” said Michael Buehler, chairman of the town’s Greenway Committee while receiving handshakes and slaps on the back from other greenway supporters after the meeting.

“I’m delighted that we got such a great turnout and I think this vote represents the will of the town,” he said. “At the same time, I’m a little daunted and humbled because this is just the first step. We have a long way to go.”

He said the town should know if it has received the grant by the end of the year. If it has, then a committee representing the town will begin negotiating with the Westfield railroad company. Because the land was appraised at $340,000, the town by law can only pay up to that amount.

It would purchase the corridor from Coleman Road to near the intersection of Valley and Brickyard roads. Although the design of the trail is not decided, current plans are to create a trail from Coleman Road to Route 10. A feasibility study completed last year considered options ranging from a gravel trail costing $900,000 to a $2.6 million path that would include parallel paved and unpaved routes.

At the meeting, supporters said purchasing the trail with the grant would not raise taxes or come out of the town’s budget, and would be a step toward creating a safe place to walk or bike.

Former selectman Douglas Blanchard of 99 Crooked Ledge Road spoke in favor of the purchase, stating that he found a new appreciation for recreational trails last year when he started using the Manhan Rail Trail in Easthampton to exercise after having two knee replacements. “I’ve been doing 10 miles a day,” he said. “Being on the bike path every day, I see everybody from 4 years old to 87 using it.”

Gary Swanson of 72 East St. said the town should have approved the path 16 years ago, when it had a chance at the same grant money that allowed Easthampton to create the Manhan Rail Trail. “We had a shot at this... and we blew it,” he said. “It’s a beautiful area.”

But residents opposed to the greenway said the path could be a burden on taxpayers down the road, during the design and construction phases, and said the vote was premature.

Abutter Michael Sacco of 116 Brickyard Road said he used to live along a rail trail in Lexington, and he will move again if the greenway project moves forward in Southampton. “I had several experiences with people coming into my yard and speaking to my children and leaving trash,” he said of his home in Lexington.

Sacco also said there are currently no state or federal grants that could cover the design costs of a rail trail. “At some point, the town will be coming back to the people, asking for money we don’t have,” he said.

Buehler said that if the town purchases the corridor and voters do not want to go forward with designing and building a rail trail, the land will still be preserved as conservation land.

Diane Rondeau of 212 Brickyard Road said she does not oppose the greenway, but she thinks the vote is too early because the town and Pioneer Valley Railroad have not negotiated yet. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until we have a more exact price?” she said.

Last week, Michael Rennicke of the Pioneer Valley Railroad said the company was “having conversations with the town.”

“We haven’t ruled out selling it to them, but we haven’t reached the conclusion of our negotiations,” he said.

A Pioneer Valley Railroad representative previously told the Board of Selectmen that it valued the land at $595,000.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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