2018-09-07 / Community

Downeaster stop sidetracked – for now

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The long and winding rail leading to a seasonal train station in Kennebunk has taken another unexpected turn, one that could derail the project, at least in the short term.

It now appears unlikely a lease enabling the project will be ready in time for the November ballot.

On Aug. 28, selectmen met for what chairman Dick Morin said “was supposed to be a brief executive session.” That closed-door meeting lasted more than two hours.

Upon emerging back into public view, Selectman Blake Baldwin made an announcement that made it appear as though things had come to an impasse.

“The board has asked legal counsel and town management to continue to negotiate with Mr. Dietz and [his] counsel, and to explore other options. Period,” Baldwin said.

Nothing more was said on what those other options might be.

After languishing in limbo for several years following a June 2014 town vote to build a $1.1 million whistlestop platform — a sum that included an $800,000 federal grant funneled through the Maine Department of Transportation — the project got a kickstart last fall under new interim economic development director Jim Black. However, selectmen initially balked, fearing the train stop could easily morph into an ongoing budget item they were unwilling to bear.

At one point last winter, selectmen voted to abandon the whole thing, only to overrule themselves at their next meeting. And as delays continued to mount, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority gave a July 1 deadline to demonstrate some progress on moving forward with some kind of a plan, or else risk lose the $800,000 federal grant.

The town’s economic development committee briefly flirted with the idea of walking away from putting the platform where it had long been presumed it would go, at the old train station located at 12 Depot St., and at one point last spring announced plans to build the platform at the old grainery building located across Summer Street.

Eventually, however, the pendulum swung back to Depot Street and the committee re-entered negotiations with Tim Dietz, who owns the original 1873 train station building, which he uses to house his media business.

By early summer, just in time to forestall the rail association deadline, plans were announced to build an 80-foot-long loading platform on land next to the old depot building. That area would be augmented by a 220-foot-long ramp down to 20 new parking spaces at street level. The town would build a stand-alone 400-square-foot bathroom building, wired to lock automatically an hour before and and hour after the last train stop each day.

It was said that all that remained was for Dietz and selectmen to agree to the final language of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) leading to a lease that would go before voters in November. It was said that Dietz had agreed to lease a strip of land along the railroad tracks between the old depot building and Summer Street to town for $1 per year for the first five years, and then $5,000 per year after that. Subsequent agreements would run in five-year blocks after that, for up to 20 years, total.

Later in the Aug. 28 meeting, Town Manager Mike Pardue reminded selectmen that, at their Aug. 14 meeting, they had voted to sponsor a public hearing Sept. 11 on the expected lease agreement, “which is obviously now not going to happen.”

Selectmen voted unanimously to cancel that hearing and to postpone indefinitely further consideration of the train station lease.

Given that Town Clerk Merton Brown has cited Sept. 11 as the last date at which anything can be sent by selectmen for the November warrant, it seems likely that a public vote on the lease will not happen at the general election.

That could put off any such vote until the annual town meeting in June, or a special town meeting held before then, if and when an agreement with Dietz, or some other property owner along the rail line, is reached.

In an Aug. 31 email, Pardue said he does not believe the new delay means the $800,000 grant is once again at risk.

“The Town and Mr. Dietz, through legal counsel, continue in close discussion as the lease of the referenced property is given thoughtful consideration,” Pardue wrote. “The due diligence being performed is required to ensure taxpayer dollars, both now and in the future, being appropriately considered. DOT is fully aware of the many steps that must be taken by the town for this initiative to come to fruition. DOT and the town of Kennebunk enjoy a very positive relationship. I have no indication at this time that grant funding for this project is at risk.”

On Tuesday, Dietz said he and his wife “fully support” public use of their property and are trying to work with the town to make that happen.

He said talks were hobbled by the late introduction during the Aug. 28 of several new concepts.

“There were ideas that were discussed that I had not heard before and I was asked to consider,” he said.

Board chairman Dick Morin indicated in a separate email that it was Dietz who, figuratively speaking, put a penny on the track. Although Morin would not give specifics of what was said in the executive session, he did provide an overview of what led to the break in negotiations.

“The lease, which is currently in the form of a memorandum of understanding, has been under negotiation for weeks,” Morin wrote. “The town attorney, Natalie Burns, and Mr. Dietz’ attorney, Durwood Parkinson, have been working diligently to come to a mutually beneficial agreement that would allow the train stop to locate just to the north side of his building.

“Late on Tuesday, a few hours before the scheduled board meeting, the town manager received a revision to the principal tenets of the MOU,” Morin said. “He (Pardue) shared that quickly and confidentially with the board with an expectation that the changes would be discussed in the executive session that evening. That is exactly what transpired, initially with the board, town attorney, and a couple of other relevant individuals, including the town engineer and finance director.

“Part way through the session, Mr. Dietz and Attorney Parkinson were invited to join the session and share their rationale and logic surrounding the changes,” Morin said. “Suffice it to say that there was sufficient anxiety with the changes that agreement was not possible then and there. Those differences are still being explored and there is still time to meet predetermined deadlines.”

For his part, Dietz says anything that seemed to come out of the blue to selectmen was probably just a function of things being set to writing for the first time.

“We’ve always been open to trying to support this because we think it’s a good idea for the town,” Dietz said. “But you have to understand that over the past four years, we’ve just been talking in generalities. This MOU was really the first chance to put down our ideas of what we expect, of what we would need to see in order to rent this property.

“In fairness to Dick, that may be the first time they had seen those ideas, but it was also the first time they had been formally put down,” Dietz said. “And then we got some ideas back that they for the first time asked us to consider.

Although, Dietz also did not get into specifics, he did say that he is no longer asking for any town modifications to the depot building itself. Reported requests for new public bathroom facilities, before the town elected to build its own separate bathrooms on its own septic system, was what reportedly promoted the brief consideration of the grainery property. However, Dietz said Depot Street slopes directly into his building and only the Downeast Energy lot next door. Among other things, Dietz has asked the town to fix those drainage issues when it builds the new train platform parking lot, he said.

“At this juncture it’s still very early in the discussion, but we’ll get there at some point, I think,” Dietz said.

Asked to sum up the current status of that station, Morin wrote, “I am impressed with the sound advice given by both attorneys to their clients regarding this complex transaction. This project on its surface appears quite simple. However, there are no less than four different entities involved in the final plan. All have a stake in the outcome. There are many moving parts to consider.

“There has been no undue delay — simply two attorneys representing clients and working to the best solution for those they represent,” Morin wrote. “The board is interested in what is best for the taxpayers and continue to navigate this issue and the many challenges it presents.”

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

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