Rail officials consider alternate sites for Brunswick train depot

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BRUNSWICK — The executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority told Brunswick residents last week that officials are considering alternate locations for an Amtrak maintenance facility.

Addressing a standing-room-only crowd, Patricia Quinn assured residents that NNEPRA would give equal consideration to land in east Brunswick and the Brunswick Industrial Park, along with already identified property between Church Road and Stanwood Street.

Concerns that a nearly 40,000-square-foot layover facility would disrupt the character of the Church-Stanwood neighborhood, reduce property values and harm neighbors’ health prompted more than 100 people to attend the June 23 forum in the Town Council chambers. Every resident who spoke opposed the site, including two town councilors, Debbie Atwood and David Watson, and the founder of a Brunswick engineering firm that specializes in noise control.

Neighbors also filed a lawsuit in early June challenging a variance NNEPRA received from the Zoning Board of Appeals that would allow the construction of the facility.

The forum, organized by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, was called in response to mounting opposition to the project. Brunswick’s entire state legislative delegation attended, along with a staffer from the office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and representatives from the Maine Department of Transportation, Amtrak and Parsons Brinckerhoff, a consulting firm hired by NNEPRA.

Quinn explained that initially, NNEPRA considered the Church-Stanwood site ideal because it was for sale, has a history of railroad use, and would not require Downeaster trains to cross Maine Street.

“It is railroad property and it had been railroad property,” Quinn said in a follow-up interview on Friday. “It is a railroad yard with a residential neighborhood adjacent to it.”

Even though the rail authority is now reconsidering that location in response to citizen opposition, it is still moving ahead with purchasing the site, she said.

DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt said the state has an interest in purchasing land alongside the railroad tracks because the tracks are state-owned north of Church Road.

“(The state) owns a lot of track, we felt this was an opportunity to acquire some property that in the future could be used on the freight side, not necessarily passenger,” he said.

If no layover facility is built, the DOT will own the property, he said.

With so many parties involved in the project, its unclear which agency ultimately has jurisdiction.

In May, Brunswick’s attorney, Pat Scully, suggested the town has no authority over the project because it is regulated by the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency. But in April, NNEPRA approached the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance to local zoning because, at the time, the authority was unaware it did not need town approval.

On Thursday, Quinn said multiple agencies would have jurisdiction over the project.

“It is a collage of lots of different things,” she said. “It goes back to what decision is being made.”

One thing is clear, however: the authority does not have to consult the town’s code enforcement office or seek building permits, Quinn said.

The facility will also not generate property taxes in Brunswick, and its employees may not all be from the area.

Quinn said the current employees of a Portland maintenance facility will be allowed to transfer to Brunswick when the new facility is completed, although she did not know how many would do so.

She said that the facility’s employees spend between $1 million and $2 million in goods and services in the greater Portland area, and anticipated a similar impact on the Brunswick economy.

While NNEPRA’s consultants will be taking public opinion into consideration, the final decision about site selection will be made by the authority’s board. Quinn said Brunswick residents are welcome to attend the authority’s public meetings, however they will not be able to vote on the final site selection.

When determining where to put the facility, engineering consultant Jan O’Kollowicz said he would consider how well the properties fit in with the surrounding neighborhoods, the noise the facility would generate, environmental impact and the cost to NNEPRA.

In response to concerns from the public, Quinn said, NNEPRA is now pursuing a design that would allow three Downeaster trains to be serviced indoors to minimize the impact on abutting property owners.

The consultants are expected to have more information for the town within three weeks.

Quinn said she thought the meeting went well and that people asked a lot of good questions.

She said she worried that people had an extreme view of what the layover facility would be like, and is eager to provide neighbors with information about the size, noise level, and operation of the facility.

Given the zoning of the property and its history, she said it is possible that it could be put to a heavier, more industrial use, and that the NNEPRA facility may be a good use in comparison.

Anna Nelson, whose property abuts the proposed site, attended the meeting and said she was pleased that NNEPRA is now considering the impact of the facility on the neighborhood.

“We’re all pretty encouraged at this point that NNEPRA has pulled back into a neutral position,” Nelson said.

She said she and her neighbors intend to be vigilant in coming weeks as they await further information from NNEPRA, and are planning on attending the authority’s board meetings in the interim.

Gerzofsky is planning to hold a second forum on the proposed train depot in early July, but the date has not yet been finalized.

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

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Crooker offers property for trains, parking

BRUNSWICK — A Topsham construction company owner has been trying unsuccessfully to get the town to put a parking facility on his east Brunswick land.

Now Ted Crooker, co-owner of Harry Crooker & Sons, has pitched the property to the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority for not only parking, but as the site for a proposed 40,000-square-foot train maintenance building.

He believes the property is ideal for both uses because of its proximity to the railroad tracks, and its distance from downtown.

“I think east Brunswick is the ideal situation for overnight parking and a train facility here in town,” the lifelong Brunswick resident told NNEPRA at a June 23 public forum on the project.

“There are a few homes out there, but a lot less than you see (represented) here tonight,” he said, referring to the impact the facility would have on the neighborhood.

Crooker said he had proposed building a parking garage on his land in 2002, and offered to sell 12 acres to the town for $1.8 million. He said his offer was rejected by then-Town Manager Don Gerrish.

“He looked at me and said, ‘you’re crazy,'” Crooker recalled.

But with parking issues downtown coming to a head with the development of Maine Street Station and the planned arrival of Downeaster train service, Crooker believes his proposal has new life.

He envisions a small parking lot downtown for short-term parking and a larger lot on his property for overnight or long-term parking.

He said his $1.8 million price “is peanuts compared with the price of (a garage) downtown.”

The town’s capital improvement plan estimated that a parking garage next to the McLellan building at the corner of Noble and Union streets would cost an estimated $3.4 million.

NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn said her organization is not interested in building a long-term parking facility for the Downeaster, but that it is considering Crooker’s property for its layover facility.

Anna Breinich, director of planning and development in Brunswick, said she hadn’t heard anything about putting a parking facility in east Brunswick, but said it is an option that should be considered.

— Emily Guerin