The city’s chief legal counsel said this week that city code enforcement officers have accumulated a case against the Catskill Mountain Railroad that could result in the closure of the tourist rail line’s maintenance and repair facility off Cornell Street in Midtown. But, Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben said, the embattled railroad had made progress on a plan to deal with a pair of decaying and purportedly toxic rail cars currently parked on the tracks outside of town.
The railroad holds the lease to 30 miles of county-owned track between Kingston and Highmount. The private for-profit business operates a seasonal tourist train along a short stretch of track from the yard in Midtown Kingston to Washington Avenue, as well as another short tourist run between MountTremper and Phoenicia. The railroad’s 30-year lease on the right of way is set to expire in 2016; a coalition of groups has advocated tearing up the tracks and repurposing the rail line as a walking and biking trail. In October, County Executive Mike Hein unveiled a proposal that would do just that using $2 million in state grant money. Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo has endorsed the plan and pledged to seek additional funding to make it a reality.
The alleged code violations were cited in a court case late last month when city officials sought and obtained a state Supreme Court injunction to prevent the railroad from moving two rail cars from a spot in the Town of Ulster where they have remained idle for a dozen years, to the Cornell Street yard. The complaint relied on lead tests performed by the county health department to back up the city’s assertion that moving the cars would leave a trail of toxic paint chips through densely populated neighborhoods along the right of way. Zweben also said that conditions at the railyard raised concerns about whether the cars could be restored there without causing additional contamination.
On Tuesday, however, Zweben said an attorney for the railroad had recently submitted a “good and substantial” proposal detailing how the railroad could transport the cars into the city without spreading contaminated paint chips.
Even as the railroad makes progress on efforts to lift the injunction, the fate of the railyard itself remains in doubt. Zweben said the citations have been in the works since February when code enforcement officials began photographing and researching conditions at the fenced-in rail yard near Boice Brothers Dairy. The alleged infractions include two violations of the city’s zoning ordinance and four violations of city property maintenance codes. Among the codes violated are sections of state code requiring that premises be kept free of rubbish, that accessory structures be structurally sound and in good repair and that “clean, safe and sanitary” conditions be maintained. The railroad is also accused of violating two provisions of the city zoning code: one that prohibits unenclosed storage and another which, Zweben said, requires planning board approval to use the site as a rail yard. The railroad has 30 days to remediate the violations or face escalating fines and penalties including, potentially, the condemnation and closure of the rail yard.
Zweben said the formal charges, which he said he expected to be served to railroad officials any day, would provide a more detailed explanation of issues. Zweben added that there would likely be a meeting between representatives of the city and the railroad to discuss a remediation plan. Last month, Mayor Shayne Gallo flatly rejected an offer from CMRR President Harry Jameson to sit down and work out a mutually agreeable solution.
Zweben, however, said that one of the alleged violations — the failure to obtain planning board approval to operate the railyard — may be impossible for the group to remediate. Zweben said that in examining the railroad’s 1991 lease agreement with Ulster County, he had discovered the right of way ends at Downs Street, just before the railyard. The railroad was allowed to operate the maintenance facility in conjunction with other users including Conrail (now CSX) and a paper recycling plant. Over the years, Zweben said, the railroad had “taken over” the facility but never taken steps to establish legal tenancy. That means, Zweben said, that Ulster County retains control of the parcel and the railroad lacks standing to seek planning board approval for the site.
“They have a number of code violations at a space that they don’t lease,” said Zweben. “They’re going to have a problem fixing some of these issues based on the fact that they are not legal occupants.”
Jameson said the language in the lease was clear in giving the railroad the right to operate the repair shop. He added that just a few years ago, the planning board had granted approval for new fencing around the yard.
Jameson also said the code enforcement action would not prevent the railroad from opening its summer season on Memorial Day weekend. The summertime weekend excursions in Kingston and Phoenicia provide the railroad with the bulk of its annual revenue. According to Jameson, the railroad could continue to operate, even if the railyard was closed. Volunteers he said, would simply perform maintenance and restoration work directly on the right of way.
However, Jameson added that the railroad was prepared to put in the time and money to remediate all of the problems identified by code enforcement officers.