Frustrated neighbors take train complaints to rail authority board

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BRUNSWICK — Anna Nelson thought she knew what she was getting into when she bought a home on Bouchard Drive, right next to the train tracks.

“I had seen the trains and heard the trains and it wasn’t anything I couldn’t live with,” she said.

What she wasn’t expecting was a nearly 40,000 square foot train maintenance facility that would operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, year round. When she found out about the proposed facility, which would be built by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority to service the Downeaster trains, her first thought was, “should we call the Realtor?”

Her second thought, along with about 30 of her neighbors, was to organize. Nelson and other residents of Bouchard Drive and Hennessey Avenue have banded together, hired a lawyer, and are appealing the April 21 Brunswick Zoning Board of Appeals decision that gave NNEPRA a variance to local zoning, effectively granting them the go-ahead to build the facility.

But it is unclear whether their appeal matters.

According to the town’s lawyer, Pat Scully, the train project never needed the variance in the first place.

At the request of Anna Breinich, director of planning and development, Scully researched the railroad industry laws and concluded that the town has no say in the project because it is overseen by the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency. The town may ask NNEPRA to participate in a voluntary review process, but may not use local zoning or other ordinances to restrict the project’s progress.

However Scully’s conclusion isn’t deterring abutters from appealing the zoning board’s decision to the Cumberland County Superior Court on the grounds that the board did not follow the law.

They claim that when NNEPRA applied for an exception to the zoning district that would allow them to build a 40,000 square foot building, it did not satisfy all four necessary criteria to receive a variance, and did not adequately inform all the abutting property owners.

They also cite a 2009 environmental assessment of the Downeaster expansion that mentioned that secondary facilities, such as train maintenance buildings, are subject to local review.

At the heart of their argument is this question: If Brunswick has no jurisdiction over the facilities project, then why would NNEPRA apply for an exception to a Brunswick zoning district?

“I didn’t realize we didn’t need to do it,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of NNEPRA. “We hadn’t done our homework ahead of time.”

Town Manager Gary Brown had a similar answer.

“Neither NNEPRA nor the town bothered to determine or check ahead of time to see whether or not our ordinances are applicable,” he said.

But some neighbors, like Nicole Vinal, don’t buy it.

“Isn’t this what they do for a living? How could they not know?” she asked.

She said she was feeling frustrated by the town’s tacit acceptance of the maintenance facility over the objection of many of the Bouchard and Hennessey residents.

“We really feel like the town has consistently shown that it’s not for the citizens of the town … that just means our only alternative is to reach out and work with NNEPRA,” Vinal said.

Vinal and fellow abutter Steve Fortier drove down to Portland on Monday afternoon to attend NNEPRA’s monthly board meeting. They brought maps of the neighborhood with them, pointed out the location of the proposed facility and its proximity to residences, and encouraged NNEPRA to find another site.

Quinn said the rail organization had considered other sites, including Rigby Yard in South Portland, but the Brunswick site was ideal because of its proximity to the end of the Downeaster’s run in Brunswick, and its length. Moving the site a few hundred yards in either direction would curtail the size of the proposed facility, she explained, which in turn would affect NNEPRA’s ability to efficiently service trains.

A maintenance facility in Brunswick would also allow the Downeaster to add two additional trips from Brunswick to Boston.

The board members listened attentively as Vinal and Fortier explained themselves, and promised to keep them informed. But they put their foot down when it came to involving the town and neighbors in the planning process.

“We’ll go out of our way to listen to you and we’ll go out of our way to be fair to you, but we won’t necessarily agree beforehand that we’re going to agree with everything you say,” said Martin Isaacson, chairman of the board.

With little legal recourse except the appeal they already filed, which could take up to a year to resolve, neighbors can only wait to see what happens next. NNEPRA is currently working out a deal to buy the property on either sides of the railroad tracks from Pan Am, and is selecting an engineer to design the building and work with residents to mitigate the facility’s impact on the neighborhood.

But if the facility goes ahead as planned, Fortier warned the NNEPRA board that they’ll be hearing from neighbors again.

“Most of these people are upset about this now but when they hear the noise (of idling trains) it’s going to be a totally different ball game.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

The proposed train maintenance facility would be located in the long, narrow lot (U23-93) in the middle of the map. The majority of the concerned neighbors live on Bouchard Drive or Hennessey Ave to the south.