MANCHESTER — The Manchester Select Board voted 5-0 to approve a motion to allow the town to enter into an agreement to purchase the rail trail at a future date if several conditions are met.
The motion, by Select Board member Heidi Chamberlain, came after a lengthy discussion about the trail and created even more discussion during a nearly three-hour meeting Tuesday, most of which was taken up with a discussion of the trail proposal.
Chamberlain said that after meeting with groups last weekend and walking the trail with them, she walked it three more times.
“Even with freezing cold weather and snow, there were people out there snowshoeing and cross-country skiing,” Chamberlain said. “It was amazing how many people were out there in January.”
That led Chamberlain to craft a lengthy, detailed motion that laid out a scenario that would allow the town to purchase the trail if a set of requirements are met.
Those requirements include obtaining all necessary permits, rights of way, funding, and permission from town voters.
Despite passing 5-0, the lengthy meeting was not without conflicting opinions and the most heated debate so far in what has been a polite and measured discussion.
The board, while mostly supportive and seemingly working to find a solution to help make the trail a reality, received more strident pushback during the meeting from the owners and supporters of the trail who challenged the board to quit talking about it and act.
Inches and feet
The discussion started out slowly, with Town Manager John O’Keefe running through the findings that resulted from two meetings in the past week about the trail.
The first, O’Keefe detailed, included town personnel, as well as Chamberlain and Greg Cutler from the Select Board and owners of the trail Robin and Amy Verner and Bill Drunsic.
The group walked the trail, taking measurements of the trail and bridges, calculating slope and analyzing what would need to be done to the trail if the town was to purchase it.
That gathering was followed by one on Sunday that also included Chamberlain and Cutler, along with Rep. Seth Bongartz and a representative from the Vermont Land Trust.
O’Keefe said the focus was on the trail’s condition, regulations, safety concerns and costs of enhancements needed.
The trail measures 10 to 11 feet wide most of the way, with bridges 46- to 47-inches wide, just short of the ADA minimum of 48-inch requirement.
He said that cost could range from maybe $20,000 at the low end for things like signage, work at either end to prevent motorized access, minimal work on the existing bridges and such, to a high end of $500,000 if the bridges have to be replaced, the trail widened and an assortment of work to bring the trail up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Few thought that figure was logical including O’Keefe who said that was “highly unlikely.”
O’Keefe spoke of the need to be able to get rescue personnel in and fencing to screen neighbors who have expressed concern about privacy and noise.
He put the annual maintenance cost for simple repairs and upkeep at about $5,000 per year.
Pull the trigger
Bill Drunsic, one of the owners who has taken the lead in addressing the board, said concerns about fencing and trash and ADA compliance wasn’t what they were there to discuss.
“It’s time for the town to make the decision about whether it’s time to add this to its quality of life structure,” Drunsic said. “The nice thing about the trail is anybody in town can use it. It’s accessible to the center of town, it’s tied into the rec area, it meets a longtime objective of the town plan, and it has no effect on next year’s budget. We’re willing to tie future payments into the Local Option Tax fund. I feel the Select Board has the obligation to let the town voters make the decision.”
Realtor Paul W. Carroccio warned the board it could be not only missing a chance but asking for trouble if it exhausted the trail’s owners’ patience and accused the board of “paralysis by analysis.”
“At some point, you have to pull the trigger,” Carroccio said. “The negative side to this is what happens next when this [group] says, ‘we’re done, we’re getting out.’ What happens next? Consider the negative possible uses of the land if the group decides to throw up their hands and say ‘we’re done.’”
Owner Amy Verner expanded on Carroccio’s question, warning the board that they’re not getting any younger and the ownership group’s kids want nothing to do with owning a trail.
“We’re in our 70s,” Verner said. “If something happens to us, our kids will sell it and they’ll sell it to someone who will build houses.”
Importance of recreation
Board chair Ivan Beattie said recreation is important to Manchester, pointing to the spending on recreation including support of, and enhancements to, the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park.
“This town of 4,400 people has spent a lot of money on recreation — way more than our neighbors,” Beattie said. “This would add to that.”
A lot of the discussion and questions about cost centered on whether the trail would have to be brought up to ADA standards.
Resident Maurie Hill addressed that issue.
“I, myself, am legally blind,” Hill said, adding that she doesn’t drive but she can ride a bike. “People in a wheelchair will investigate what they’re going to do. People with disabilities are actually pretty smart. We have to think outside of the box and we’re very cautious because we don’t have our whole body. I think you have to minimize the need for making it ADA compliant. If I got hurt on the trail, whether it’s because of my vision or not, I’m going to take responsibility for that.”
Others pointed out that there are trails all over Vermont, including those owned by towns, the state and federal government that are not ADA compliant.
Drunsic pressured the board to act.
“It’s down to a point of doing something or not doing it,” Drunsic said.
Beattie answered that if that was the question, his vote would be no because there are too many unanswered questions.
“We don’t usually have these discussions in public, but I think it’s really important for people to see how these discussions take place,” Beattie said.
The discussion got more tense when longtime trail supporter Kathe Dillmann told the board she had just listened to three hours of talking in circles that she characterized as wasted time.
“I’m incredibly disappointed,” Dillmann said.
Beattie took issue with Dillmann’s comment, saying that approximately 1 percent of the registered voters had expressed support for the project.
“That’s a lot, but it’s not a mandate by any means,” Beattie said. “There are people who are against this. To say we’ve wasted the last three hours ... we have a motion on the floor. The other alternative is to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ If that is a waste of three hours than you have a different perspective on it than I do. I’m going to get phone call after phone call after phone call. That’s why I get the big bucks.”
And with that, Beattie called the question, which passed 5-0.
Beattie said the motion might have to be tweaked a bit to clarify the language. The board will take it up again Tuesday when the board tackles the trail issue one final time before Town Meeting Day on March 2.