2018-06-01 / Front Page

Train station chugs along

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen in Kennebunk have got their first look at train station numbers they’ve been asking for since last fall, but whether or not that will translate into a long-awaited seasonal stop remains to be seen.

Still, the first first hurdle was cleared at the board’s May 22 meeting, with the second slated to come at a special meeting May 29. That second session took place after the print deadline for this week’s Post.

The one-week layover to the 29th was intended to give selectmen time to digest a 26-page document submitted by members of the town’s economic development committee (EDC) just hours before the board’s May 22 session.

However, based on their preliminary review of that EDC report, board members said they expected to vote on the May 29 to have town manager Mike Pardue draft a letter to the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) to announce a general intent to move forward, with caveats that some details still need to be worked out before final approval by voters Nov. 6.

That letter is important because, on Feb. 27, Kennebunk got a letter of its own 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, or else risk lose $800,000 in federal grant money — the lion’s share of funding for the $1.1 million construction project. MDOT has reportedly demanded that the new platform be ready to process passengers by December 2019.

“We have until July 1 to say yes we are going to do this,” Selectman Dan Boothby said.

“I think we have a strong plan. We are hoping that you will commit to the station moving forward,” said EDC member June Huston, who spoke on behalf of the committee at the May 22 selectboard meeting.

The outline presented by Huston calls on the seasonal stop to be built on land owned by Tim Dietz along Depot Street, between Summer Street and the original 1873 train station, which now houses Dietz’ corporate communications firm.

Based on a preliminary memorandum of understanding (MOU), Dietz will lease the strip of land 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, up to 20 years.

An 80-foot-long loading platform would be augmented by a 220-foot-long ramp down to street level and 20 parking spaces. Meanwhile, the town will build a stand-alone 400-squarefoot bathroom building, wired to lock automatically an hour before and and hour after the last train stop each day.

According to Community Development Director Chris Osterrieder, the bathroom building, to be on its own septic system, will be at the Summer Street end of the platform, at the opposite end of the new parking area from the old depot.

The committee has also ballparked an estimate of $9,940 and $16,940 per year for ongoing maintenance of the platform, bathrooms and parking area, depending on the cost of liability insurance.

“Until something is actually built, they (insurance companies) are not willing to give us a quote on the cost of that,” Huston said.

Cost that could be nailed down include $2,500 per year for cleaning the restrooms, $900 for electricity, $750 for internet service — required to run the bathroom door locks, surveillance cameras and Amtrak’s ticketing kiosk — $1,000 for grounds work, $300 to heat the bathrooms, $360 for security monitoring, $450 for lot plowing and platform snow removal, $55 for septic services, $225 for the water bill and $1,000 as a hedge against vandalism and the need for miscellaneous repairs.

“I don’t see where anything could be missed,” Huston said of the EDC cost estimate.

Huston, who owns Huston Home Renovations on Main Street, said she will offer to donate her services for future annual painting and maintenance of the new train station bathrooms.

However, there was some challenge of the cost estimate. Resident and station supporter Lionel Menard said the lease payments should be rolled into the maintenance costs to be borne by taxpayers. He also questioned what appeared in the EDC summary to be a requirement that the town purchase the property from Dietz at some point.

“That doesn’t commit us to purchase it,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “It just gives us the ability to purchase it if we choose. It’s a right of first refusal. I think that was the intent.”

Selectman Ed Karytko said what he got out of queries he’d posed to NNEPRA head Pat Quinn was that Kennebunk will be on the hook for providing public transportation to those who get off the Downeaster in town.

“If that is going to be mandated, then that should be included in the budget,” he said, citing $35,000 per year Freeport reportedly spends to shuttle train passengers to and from local amenities.

“She (Quinn)has never cited to me that there is a specific requirement for transportation,” Pardue said.

“As far as we know, we just have to have a transportation plan. We don’t have to have provide public transportation,” Huston said.

“But we’re only a half mile from downtown,” she added. “It’s a beautiful stroll along Summer Street and the historic district, so walking is not out of the question.”

Huston said both the EDC and the Chamber of Commerce have plans to hook horns with bike and scooter rental companies, taxicab and Uber providers, and area motels, as well as existing bus and trolley services in the area, to serve train debarkers.

“We just want to make sure we have a train station actually in motion before we develop these conversations,” she said.

“I think what NNEPRA represented was that they wanted to know that the town had the ability to provide a transportation service to people when they got off the train, whether it was the town, public or provide,” Osterrieder said. “What their overarching concern was, was that people would get off the train and not know what to do.”

Although some costs and requirements have yet to be finalized, selectmen declared themselves satisfied with the EDC report.

“I don’t think we need to beat this up tonight. We just need some time to digest it,” board chairman Dick Morin said. “It has more content than frankly I would have expected, and I am pleased with that.”

“This seems like an extremely reasonable budget in line with what we would expect for a reasonable stop,” Selectman Shiloh Schulte said. “From what I’ve heard tonight, I don’t think there’s any question whether we’ll move forward, the only question outstanding is what the caveats will be.”

Those caveats are largely related to the unknowns of the hoops and hurdles yet to be cleared, the first of which will be MDOT’s response to the letter Pardue was expected to send following the selectboard’s May 29 meeting.

“The one thing we do not have any control over right now is DOT’s response to that,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said.

According to a timeline presented Huston, the EDC plans to meet again with Dietz by June 1 to ink the lease deal. After its next regular meeting on June 6, the committee expects to present a finalized concept plan for the station to the Maine Department of Transportation and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority on June 15. That will just make a July 1 deadline set by Mary Ann Hayes, MDOT’s multi-modal planning division manager.

The EDC will hold a special meeting on June 21 to review its station plans and applications, preparatory to making a formal submission to the town’s site plan review committee on July 11. The EDC will apply to the town’s historic preservation committee for a certificate of appropriateness for the project.

The train station plan is then expected to be on the agenda for site plan review board and historic preservation commission meetings in mid-August, before returning to selectmen for a final vote on Aug. 27. The final step will be a public vote no Nov. 6 to approve the lease with Dietz for use of the property.

“I think all of us will be happy to know one way or the other what the town really feels on this subject,” Baldwin said. “It will be interesting to see if support for this seasonal train stop is as robust as some think it is.”

Huston said hearings may also be needed before the planning board, as construction of a train platform could constitute a change in use under the current contract zone for the property. If an amendment is required, that also will go to public vote Nov. 6, she said.

According to Town Clerk Merton Brown Sept. 1 is the “drop dead date” to have everything finalized to make the November ballot.

Whatever the decision at the May 29 board meeting, selectmen congratulated the EDC members for powering through what, in Baldwin’s words, has been a “mercurial” stance on the station.

“Your perseverance in the face of that has been outstanding,” Baldwin said.

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

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