2018-05-25 / Front Page

New course plotted for train stop

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

The historic train station in Kennebunk, built in 1873 and now home to Dietz Associates, could soon get a new neighbor — an actual train stop for the Amtrak Downeaster. Under plans slated to be unveiled to selectmen by the town’s economic development committee May 22, a $1.1 million train platform would be built between the old depot and the Summer Street bridge, along with 20 parking spots and a 400-square-foot bathroom facility. The town faces a July 1 deadline to present a project timeline to the Maine Department of Transportation assuring completion of the site by December 2019, or risk losing $800,000 in grant funding. (Duke Harrington photo) The historic train station in Kennebunk, built in 1873 and now home to Dietz Associates, could soon get a new neighbor — an actual train stop for the Amtrak Downeaster. Under plans slated to be unveiled to selectmen by the town’s economic development committee May 22, a $1.1 million train platform would be built between the old depot and the Summer Street bridge, along with 20 parking spots and a 400-square-foot bathroom facility. The town faces a July 1 deadline to present a project timeline to the Maine Department of Transportation assuring completion of the site by December 2019, or risk losing $800,000 in grant funding. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — Four years after a public vote authorizing funds to build a seasonal train platform in Kennebunk, town officials are set to unveil their site selection for the perfect stop. And, despite the many delays and detours over the intervening years, that location is exactly where it was expected to go all along.

At the Tuesday, May 22, meeting of the board of selectmen, the town’s economic development committee (EDC) was slated to announce it has reached an accord on a “memorandum of understanding” with Tim Dietz, owner of the historic train station at 12 Depot St.

That meeting took place after the deadline for this week’s Post, but at a meeting on Monday, the EDC finalized plans for the $1.1 million platform, including up to $16,000 in annual operating costs. That figure has, until now, been an unknown, and, as such, became a bee in the bonnet for at least two selectmen. At one point last fall, the board even voted to kill the entire project after years of anticipation.

The possibility of a local stop for the Amtrak Downeaster was first broached in June 2014, when voters approved a bond package that included $300,000 as a local match, meant to leverage an $800,000 federal grant, funneled to the town through the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT).

Plans announced at the time included placing the platform at the old depot, which since 1992 has housed Dietz’ corporate communications firm. However, despite initial fanfare, the project never quite built up any momentum, despite the town expending about $50,000 on engineering plans.

Part of the problem, selectmen and EDC members around at the time have said, was the limited space for parking at the station. Former town manager Barry Tibbetts had reportedly tried to put together a deal for expanded parking across Depot Street from the train station.

In February 2015, developer Tim Harrington bought the property at 11 Depot St. for $183,000. This area was initially eyed as an area for expanded parking, but development there was later deemed prohibitively expensive, at least for the funding on hand, and the project ground to a halt.

The idea of train station continued to hang in limbo until last October, when the town’s new interim economic development director, Jim Black, presented selectmen with a long-term concept kickstart the project — a proposal that including plans to scale-up the seasonal train platform into a regional multimodal transportation complex, should demand warrant.

In November, the board voted 4-3 against a proposal pitched by economic development committee Bob Georgitis, who asked them to form a special ad hoc committee to vet three finalist sites and launch negotiations with a preferred landowner.

At the time, board chairman Dick Morin said that vote effectively killed the train station dead in its tracks. And that was deemed just fine with Morin and Selectman Ed Karytko, both of whom questioned the longterm public cost should the simple platform become a public transit hub.

In December, the board made a 180-degree turn, voting 6-1 to reverse course by appointing Georgitis, Black and Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder, to begin the process of site selection, tasking the trio with formulating an estimate of how much it should cost to build, operate, and maintain, a seasonal platform over the long haul.

The initial report of that group led to occasionally heated debate at the Feb. 13 selectoard meeting, ending in a 5-2 vote to have the ad hoc group — now to be augmented by the entire economic development committee — explore specific plans and costs associated with what had, by then, emerged as the front-running candidate to host the platform. That site, the historic “grainery” property on Plummer Lane, owned since 2008 by David Gould, is just off Summer Street, on the opposite side of the road from the old depot.

That site had emerged in part because it could accommodate more parking for buses, trolleys, taxis, and other modes of transport that might compliment a train station. But also, EDC committee members said, Dietz also wanted the town to install public restrooms within the old train station, given how many tourists tend to knock on his door anyway, thinking it has such facilities.

At a March 7 meeting of the economic development committee, Gould’s property was announced as the presumptive platform location and a concept plan for the site, prepared by South Portland engineering firm Sebago Technics, was presented to give an idea for what the new station might look like.

Around that time, it also was noted that the town is now operating under the gun, as it were, as MDOT will reportedly pull back its $800,000 grant money if the platform is not ready to process passengers by December 2019.

On Feb. 27, Kennebunk got a letter from MDOT and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), giving a July 1 deadline to demonstrate some progress on moving forward with a plan.

On Monday, Town Manager Mike Pardue said that on April 5 he met with Mary Ann Hayes, Multimodal Planning Division Manager, regarding this deadline.

“Ms Hayes and I discussed the proposed train stop, to include the level of commitment she was seeking from the town in order to preserve the DOT funding for the proposed train stop,” Pardue said, noting that the July 1 deadline for “a revised schedule on how the project will be completed.’ still stands.

However, a new monkey wrench was thrown into the works when neighbors of the grainery building emerged to complain about traffic and other concerns for their quiet street.

On April 10, selectmen met in executive session with Georgitas and EDC vice chair Heather Harris, as well as Black, Town Attorney Bill Dale, Finance Director Joel Downs and Community Development Director Chris Osterrieder. The official word from Morin coming out of that closed-door meeting was that, in it, selectmen had authorized “continued examination and pulling together of details and plan specifics that will be entertained,” as well as authorizing Pardue “to act on behalf of the town in that regard.”

Executive sessions are generally for informational purposes only and, by law votes and decision of the board are only supposed to be made in public.

In an interview following the May 16 selectboard candidates debate, both Pardue and Morin said the decision had been during the April 10 executive session to reopen negotiations with Dietz.

On May 3, the EDC voted to drop Gould and focus on the Dietz property as its first preference.

“Bob Georgitis and I met with Mr. Dietz on May 9 to discuss some of the particulars related to a possible memorandum of understanding and/or lease agreement for portions of his property located on Depot Street,” Pardue said in a May 21 email. “Mr. Georgitis agreed to follow-up with Mr. Dietz at a later date to delve further into the development of a Memorandum of Understanding / Lease Agreement on this initiative, as part of the work of the [train station] workgroup.”

“There are a lot more advantages to that property,” EDC member Gary Dugas said at the May 21 EDC meeting, explaining the decision. “You can walk to [downtown] Kennebunk from there without crossing [Summer Street], you’ve got better traffic pattern, you can get out easier to go to Kennebunkport, or you can follow Factory Pasture Lane to Kennebunk.”

Dugas also noted Depot Street has “better sight distances” for traffic on Summer Street than does Plummer Lane.

The Dietz property also reportedly does not require the zoning changes that might have been needed at the Gould property.

Latest plan

At the May 21 EDC meeting, Georgitis said Dietz had agreed to lease the strip of land between the depot building and Summer Street to the town for $1 per year for the first five years, and then $5,000 per year after that, with subsequent agreements to run in five-year blocks.

“He [Dietz] and his wife have agreed to the MOU (memorandum of understanding),” Georgitis told committee members. “There are some details still to be worked out, but in concept they are on board with following through. So, that’s huge.”

In addition to an 80-foot-long train platform, the town will build 20 parking spaces on the Dietz land, as well as a stand-alone 400-square-foot bathroom building. Those bathrooms will be wired to lock automatically an hour before and and hour after the last train stop each day.

According to Osterrieder, the bathroom building will be at the Summer Street end of the platform strip, at the opposite end of the new parking area from the old depot building. The platform will be located between the two.

According to Stephen Sawyer, vice president of transportation services, the project should come in at $1.1 million.

“The good news is, you can do it for the money you have on hand,” he said.

The committee has also ballparked an estimate of $11,000 to $16,000 per year for ongoing maintenance of the platform, bathrooms, and parking area. The primary difference in the estimate endposts is the cost of liability insurance which has yet to be nailed down.

Georgitis said the balance of the operations estimate was derived from taking a list of costs associated with the Waterhouse Center, obtained from Downs, and “crossing out everything that does not apply.”

At the May 21 meeting, alternate EDC member June Huston refined those numbers coming up with $2,500 per year for cleaning the restrooms, $600 for electricity, $750 for internet service, $1,000 for grounds work, $300 to heat the bathrooms, $600 for security monitoring, $450 for lot plowing and platform snow removal, $75 for sewer, and $1,000 as a hedge against vandalism and miscellaneous repairs. The rest would go toward insurance.

Huston, who owns Huston Home Renovations on Main Street, said on Monday she also will offer to donate her services for future maintenance of the new train station, with plans to repaint the bathrooms and perform other needed refurbishment at the five-year mark.

Although he has publically scoffed at the station in the past, citing other more pressing needs for the town to address on a finite budget, Morin said Monday he “remains neutral despite the perception left by my comments.”

“Once answers are provided to the many questions already asked I believe we will be able to move this matter forward,” he said. “It’s premature to comment on the matter, mostly because we have yet to see a comprehensive plan that includes some design narrative, operating expenses, and requirements of the concept — both former location and the return to the original one.”

The EDC chose not to present any numbers for the Gould property at the May 22 selectmen’s meeting, given their collective sole preference now for the Dietz site. But even if the board likes what it hears Tuesday and agrees to move forward, the timeline still may present too much of a crunch.

“I believe we have a couple of town meeting decisions needed and to hear from planning board, site plan and historic preservation committees before we can commit to anything,” Morin said. “These hearings and decisions could take months if not a year to complete. That may or may not satisfy MDOT with regard to their grant fund availability.”

Attorney Dale could not be reached on Monday, but Georgitas quoted him as claiming a town meeting vote will be required to approve any lease with Dietz. But again, the project could wither on the vine before it gets to that point.

“My underlying concern has been the costs and manpower to properly service and maintain the facility while we stare down the barrel of horrific roads and infrastructure costs, an extremely thin department of public works, a significant bump in our tax rate to cover the school expansion and the anecdotal evidence from the other stations along the line that the economic value is negligible at best,” Morin said. “Should this become the success that most hope for, we have virtually no expansion capability at that site and a move from that site will be even more costly when looking at future dollars.

Morin and Karytko have been stumping for a plan to add Kennebunk’s nameplate on the train station in Wells, a site Kayrtko has often noted, “is only 10 minutes away.”

“Right now we have an opportunity to test the waters with a co-branding effort for not much more than $8,000 per year,” Morin said. “Should that effort spark the commitment and interest of the travelers and residents, we could use that time to properly execute a sustainable plan, put our ducks in a row with regard to the issues mentioned, and more fully develop the attractions that draw visitors to our community.

“I have traveled on the train, enjoy the ambiance and appreciate the contribution to lessening the impact on our environment,” Morin said, “but I can do all of that at either the stop 5 miles south or 6 miles north of Kennebunk any day of the week right now. This leaves me conflicted which diminishes my appetite for risk.”

In the end, Morin suggested the plan to be presented by the EDC Tuesday might have been too little, too late.

“It is unfortunate that after six-plus months we have nothing in hand of significance or substance to review,” he said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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