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Southampton seeks state help in greenway negotiations

Charles McDonald, a member of the Conservation Commission and the Negotiating Committee charged with working with Pioneer Valley Railroad, said the company does not want to sell the section of unused rail bed for $340,000, but the town cannot legally pay a penny more because that amount is the land’s appraised value.

Representatives of Pioneer Valley Railroad have proposed a few ways the town could sweeten the deal so they would agree to sell. The only one the town is pursuing now, McDonald said, involves getting the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to give 4.25 miles of rails it has in storage to the rail company.

“I don’t know if historically it’s been done before,” McDonald said of the proposed trade, which MassDOT has not agreed to. He said the committee met with a MassDOT representative about the possibility and sent a formal request to Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey July 17.

“MassDOT’s Rail Division is always interested in being helpful to communities and railroad operators,” said Sara Lavoie, a department spokeswoman. In an email, Lavoie said she could not speak specifically about Southampton’s request because the department has not reviewed it yet.

“In general, our process would be to engage all stakeholders to understand the situation before determining what assistance to provide or actions to take,” she said.

McDonald said that if the state declines to offer the rails, “the negotiating team will discuss how to move forward.”

Now nearly six months into the negotiating process, McDonald described the committee’s feelings about the negotiations as “neutral.”

“We’re not optimistic or pessimistic,” he said. It’s going to take time, he said, but the deadline to use a two-thirds matching grant toward the land purchase is the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2014.

Working out a deal

The idea of creating a recreational trail, called a greenway, has been alive in Southampton since the mid 1990s, but voters didn’t approve the purchase for $340,000 until November of last year.

Two-thirds of the price, should the rail company agree to it, would be covered by a state Local Acquisition for Natural Diversity (LAND) grant. Community Preservation Act funds would pay the remaining $115,600.

The town is hoping to buy the 4.25-mile stretch of rail bed from the end of Easthampton’s Manhan Rail Trail at Coleman Road to the intersection of Valley and Brickyard roads. Preliminary plans from the Friends of Southampton Greenway suggest developing the trail from Coleman Road only to the intersection with Route 10 near Sheldon’s Ice Cream.

“It would be a wonderful addition to the town,” McDonald said of the greenway.

Even before the vote in November, Pioneer Valley Railroad had voiced concerns to town officials that the $340,000 appraisal was too low. But greenway supporters hoped they could come to an agreement at the bargaining table.

McDonald said the company has suggested a few conditions under which it would consider selling for that price, including the possible rail donation from MassDOT.

The rail company is interested in high quality rails that MassDOT has in storage, McDonald said. If MassDOT agrees to give Pioneer Valley Railroad the equivalent length of the section the town wants to buy in the heavier, 107-pound rails, the company has indicated it would consider selling.

Railroad executives also suggested the company retain the rights to sell the ground under the railroad for installing utilities, but McDonald said the conditions of the LAND grant would not allow that development.

Meanwhile, a resident who opposes the greenway took issue with the town’s request to MassDOT. Michael Sacco, whose Brickyard Road property abuts a section of rail bed the town wants to buy, claimed town officials misrepresented facts to state officials when they stated the greenway would connect similar trails in Easthampton and Westfield.

In a letter to MassDOT and the state Ethics Commission, Sacco argued that there are no plans to connect the trails by the rail bed because the rail company still uses the section of it between the end of the Columbia Greenway in Westfield and the Valley and Brickyard roads area.

McDonald said the trails will not be connected by the railroad corridor, but the towns could decide to connect them by running the greenway along public roads.

Even if the negotiations are successful and the town purchases the land before the deadline next summer, McDonald said that creating the greenway “will be another formidable challenge.”

According to a feasibility study, the transformation of the rail bed to a recreational trail could cost $900,000 to $2.6 million, depending on the features of the path.

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

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