City, railroad at odds over yard

CMRR volunteers Al Schoessow and Alex Sorenson work on the line by Kingston Plaza. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

CMRR volunteers Al Schoessow and Alex Sorenson work on the line by Kingston Plaza. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

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.

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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.

There are 20 comments

  1. gerald berke

    The city seems heavy handed and legalistic… Part of the job of getting things done is not leaving a mess behind… whether it’s a rail road or a city applying its laws to a purpose.
    The lions share of real, good work is ultimately voluntary, extremely difficult if not impossible to coerce… when you don’t have the affection of your citizens, your customers, your workers, the job you do will never be more than mediocre. Mediocre isn’t bad, it just is what it is. Like nice and average, not something you want on your tombstone.

  2. Ryan Lennox

    Man you guy’s really want to put the CMRR out of business. Throwing every single punch you can at those poor volunteers. They finally make progress, and Ulster County couldnt give a crap. When the railroad is gone, so does the community and it’s jobs. This is Ulster County’s last chance. The trail will become a dime a dozen, SUPPORT THE RAILROAD! They want to get ulster county back on track!

  3. Bryanx

    Internecine conflict. Everybody loses.

    Luckily, the business that gets chased away due to these monkeyshines can’t be measured.

    Or maybe it can. Just walk about the area, take a look around, and know that improvements won’t likely happen on a widespread scale anytime soon as long as government is seen as a bullying force that wages war on its citizens.

    Investment will go where conditions are favorable, where the people see themselves as a community and the government is responsive and in partnership with that community. No money man in his right mind would place their bets where local leadership is seen as obtuse and punitive to the extreme.

    Especially in light of the long-term damage it has already wrought.

  4. Bill

    Big thanks to Gallo, Zweben, Hein & White for trying to making Kingston/Ulster County a better place to live!

    “…but he nonetheless wondered why the sudden interest by the city’s code enforcement officers in a facility that has been in existence for as long as he can remember.”

    Short memory, no? Didn’t CMRR only start operating in Kingston in 2007 (following the Alta Rail w/Trail Study)?

    Nobody is putting the CMRR out of business. They will be allowed to continue to operate and expand their operation in Mt Tremper, where they have the majority of their riders.

    1. gberke

      thank you. more facts. still sad for the cmrr guys, 6 years… I’m unhappy with putting Kingston and UC as unfeeling louts trying to put some sweet dude out of business so they can steal his land, whatever… even in the Olympics, somebody comes in second, third, etc… you have to work really really hard just to play, and you get credit for that… your friends know what great stuff you did.

  5. KingsHwy

    This is shameful. The CMRR is a group of dedicated volunteers working on their passion–the railroad.

    Unlike the Mayor or the Kingston School District, the CMRR operates on a limited budget. They can’t raise taxes when they fail.

    Unlike the nasty attitudes prevalent at city hall, the CMRR railroad conductors, ticket takers, and volunteers are all excited to be there. They are our fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers in this community–a true grass roots organization representative of the past prosperity of Kingston.

    The CMRR is our history, and for the mayor and his crony Zweben to abuse their power to bring this organization to their knees with red tape, arrogance, and legal wrangling is heinous and spiteful.

    Here’s an idea. Why doesn’t the mayor look at helping the CMRR? How about bringing tourists back to our city? How about being a part of solution to create an attraction which no other city or town in the region can offer?

    Shayne Gallo needs to take a hard look at himself and see how others perceive his heavy-handed actions, autocratic rule, spite, and nasty diatribe. He is only hurting himself and all of us citizens.

  6. Paul Payton

    Where did Kingston and Ulster County get these childish “leaders”? And why the vendetta, laced with misrepresentations and outright lies, against the railroad? These are supposed to be governments, not a bunch of petulant schoolyard bullies.

    With the cooperation – or even the simple acquiesence – of the county and city, CMRR could become a huge and unique tourist engine, helping Kingston and the entire region. If the money spent fighting it were spent helping it, the CMRR could already be running to the stunningly-scenic reservoir, with views exclusive to the train, and beond over the rebuilt Boiceville Trestle to Phoenicia.

    In truth, the funds exist and have been approved via FEMA, but the county and city won’t release them. Why not? Wouldn’t the area’s politicians want to support a small business (the railroad) which would help to grow the revenue stream (tourism) for an area that desperately needs it?

    Shortsightedness is not a good quality in politicians. The mountains are full of trails; they are not full of genuinely unique scenic attractions like the CMRR.

  7. Derek

    “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. ”

    It seems to me that this site has probably been a rail yard since long before a “planning board” ever existed.

    “Over the years, Zweben said, the railroad had “taken over” the facility but never taken steps to establish legal tenancy.”

    Seems like a textbook example of adverse possession. If they’ve been doing so for more than 10 years, which it sounds like they have been, they could very well have a legal claim to ownership of the property.

    In other words, if that property isn’t part of the leased right of way, and they’ve been occupying it and using in the same fashion as someone who owns the land for 10+ years, then the principle of adverse possession means they can – in theory at least – simply file some paperwork and the deed to the property is theirs.

    It’d certainly be a LITTLE more complicated than that given that it’s public property, and that they were leasing adjacent space, but still… Kingston may have opened a larger can of worms than they’d hoped for.

  8. Islanderh93

    As a novice auto mechanic, I can assure you that working on a car outside is rather difficult. As a train is larger and a bit harder to work on than a car, I’d like to know how the recomendation to “just work on equipment on the right of way” is supposed to work. With all the litter I see piled up on the tracks and the trespassing done, it’s not going to be a secure, clean or safe enviornment.

    It’s a railroad for pete’s sake. A yard exists to put things off of the mainline track, and allow the train to pass a section of track. By moving out of the yard, how is a train supposed to run?

    If the city of Kingston wants to be proactive about the situation I would suggest the following points:
    1. Assist the railroad in the paperwork process for aquiring ‘legal ownership’ of the yard premesis. If the problem is simply they don’t actually have a piece of paper indicating they own the yard, help them get it. I don’t know their neighbors, but I have been lead to believe that the adjacent industries and commercial locations were o.k. with the site being a rail yard.
    2. If not feasable, assist in securing a new location for a yard. By secure I don’t mean just telling the railroad to “GTHO”. If this legal issue is a snafu that somehow can’t be legalized, then build a yard the railroad can use somewhere else in Kingston, like near the Holiday inn, or near the shopping area. It’s gonna need trackage and a fence before it’s a yard though
    3. Think ahead. It seems rather foolish that the city has only recently realized anything being wrong, which is why I am lead to believe the ciyt is out to get the railroad. If there is actually anything else wrong with the operations, try to notify the railroad a little sooner to when it happened.

    I do hope the folks on the railroad keep their cool and find a way to get around this additional huddle.

    Oh and Ulster County? Could you please get that $3.2 million dollar set of FEMA grants to the railroad so it can restore it’s Cold Brook trackage so that it can become profitable again? It would really help if the landlord was helping to actually fix its tennant’s leased property here!

    Ah what a shame that the city seems to want the railroad out of town. While they’re at it, is there anything that CSX is violating? Or the boatyards? Or the auto shops? If the railroad is breaking all kinds of codes we’ve never heard of, I’m sure someone else in town is really messing things up too. Unless of course it’s all just to kill a railroad RUN BY VOLUNTEERS!

    1. gerald berke

      The railroad is a for profit organization… ie, it is not a not for profit and there is money being made and people being paid and an investment that is growing. Voluntary work does not automatically become good or beneficial to the community. And there is a lot of money to be made in non profit organizations in obtaining and distributing grants.
      That being said, it is abundantly clear that that city and county are hostile to the rail road, and are acting in an adversarial mode with the power granted them by dint of their being publicly elected officials representing the citizens. However contentious and noisome the conflict of opinions, it is suggested but not shown that the government is not acting in the best interests of the citizens. And whatever the financial facts may be, the citizens can have the final say… and the citizens are not bound by anything but what they desire in such matters, so long as it is within the law.
      The assumption that the other side is composed of scoundrels and miscreants of low worth is painful, costly and destructive and lays at the feet of city and country officials whose actions have been heavy handed. Right or wrong, they are heavy handed and setting a very poor tone for public service and can be condemned for such.

      1. Paul Payton

        The railroad would certainly like to be a consistent profit-maker, which would go back into improved maintenance, its intended right-of-way and continuing to develop a unique “star attraction” to bring money and people back into the area in ways that “just another trail” can’t do. Mr. Berke and others are correct in their assessment of the behavior of most of the city and county officials as heavy-handed. As a stockholder in the CMRR as we’ll as a believer in all forms of rail transportation (past, present and future) and its benefits as part of an integrated transportation network, I want to know why these officials have suddenly become so active in their attack on the railroad.

        The CMRR is and wants to continue to be a good corporate citizen of the city and the county. It represents an opportunity for grater growth and development in an area sorely in need of it, while respecting the environmen5. It also seems that the majority of area residents support it – and it has existed for well over 100 years, longer than any of us have been alive. (Remember, it was “out of service” not never abandoned.). So what’s the disconnect here? not just the same old name-calling and fear-stoking _ what’s really going on here?

        1. gerald berke

          I don’t know why the city and county have been rude… it’s up to them to at least acknowledge that behavior but an “explanation” is no free pass: of all places to poison the public well, the government itself ought never to do that but be the civilizing influence. That vitriol spills out into every aspect of the community: that has to lose my voice and my vote.

          Transportation is generally worthy of subsidizing, but that means they must be especially responsive and communicative to public needs against their own success and certainly against their prospering. They must actively seek to serve the public interests ahead of their own. There is no way that this train can be a profit maker, independent of subsidy and tax break and public support and there can be no such numbers that could demonstrate that. Capital costs, fixed and variable costs, maintenance, employees, benefits, fares, energy, insurance… whatever would those numbers look like?

          And it would be essential to see salaries… a “non profit” can generate a lot of individual gains, tax write offs…

          What have you done for me lately, what are your plans, how do you keep me informed of your plans and how do you work with the rest of the community vis a vis parades, farmers markets, education, environment, how welcoming are you, both as an operation and the way all associated with the enterprise relates to the public?

          In general, the nature of the RR is “look but don’t touch”, stay away from the danger, and sorry about the smoke and the noise and the horns all around crossings at grade… some horrendous noise from the trains that traverse this city. They are nowhere interoperable with other forms of transportation… and they sever the landscape most emphatically and they join rather than sever communities.

          Well, like Frost said “Sorry I could not travel both….”, we are faced with choice or find some compromise…

          The rail trails south of Kingston have grown slowly but wonderfully… they are attractive and peaceful additions to the view scape and the communities

          1. Paul Payton

            Ryan, I have already signed and hope that others ddo, too.

            Gerald, I very much appeciate your points. The railroad has come very far with volunteer labor and is trying to interact with the city and region in every way, despite how hard the mayor and country executive are making it. It is hard to engage in community outreach when one is constantly – literally – fighting City Hall.

            Every business needs investment to grow and realize its potential. The county already owns the right-of-way; a little more investment – even just freeing up funds already allocated for the CMRR and not sucking money from either the railroad or the city and county in court – would go a long way to “seeding” the growth of the CMRR into the kind of tourist attraction that will bring money and people back to Kingston and Ulster Country. (The railrroad also has the potential for freight business which would benefit the area.) There are already many trails, and the railroad has indicated its willingness to co-exist with another one; but there is only one surviving railroad with the kind of potential the CMRR has. Given the time and room – and already-approved funding – to develop, grow and prosper, the CMRR will make the region proud.

            By the way, please ride the CMRR this summer – it starts this weekend. The Kingston operation will be running westbound over the newly-rebuilt bridge over the Esopus; the creek crossing is just an indication of the attractive vistas that lie ahead along the ROW.

  9. Texas Vet

    The closer you are to NYC, the dumber things get. Follow the money. Someone on the board/mayor’s office will get their palm greased when the rails are lifted. All that goober talk about trails is a crock. Too many places in the USA are trails with no motorized access. Once you hit 60 and are no longer able to squeeze into the pornographic bike pants and peddle for hours, those areas are effectively off limits to you. Hate them, just hate them. Nothing but a money pit.

    1. Paul Payton

      When I was last in Kingston, no one was hiking on the adjacent O & W Trail, but there were dozens of people riding the trains. That should tell someone something, never mind just “following the money” (which should tell people something else).

  10. John Garesche

    The railroad has to go. They are not good neighbors, and they are not helping the community. They should continue to operate up in Phoenicia where they have a legitamate opperation, but in Kingston, they are only operating in order to prevent a trail from going into place.

    That railyard directly blocks a potential trail from connecting up to the WalKill Valley Rail Trail that goes all the way to New Paltz (and beyond) where it will eventually connect with the Walkway over the Hudson. When a trail connects from the Walkway to the Ashokan – that will be a real economic benefit.

    If the railroad is serious about a rail and trail then they should have reached out to the trail people years ago – instead of spurning them and telling them to stay off the tracks (which was a violation of their lease).

    I do hope the railroad will continue up in Phoenicia, and, I do hope that someday they manage to get it connected – next to trail all the way back to Kingston. But right now, they need to focus on the operation in Phoenicia and let a trail be built in Kingston.

    1. gberke

      “If the railroad is serious about a rail and trail then they should have reached out to the trail people years ago – instead of spurning them and telling them to stay off the tracks (which was a violation of their lease).”
      Absolutely the case and still the case: they still will not “permit” let alone encourage hikers… although there is nothing stopping people from hiking and indeed, according to the lease, they would be in direct violation if they interfered.
      Anyone who is inclined to hike that rail bed can do it. Weather has not been, shall we say, the best… and there is a major push next week on trail from Midtown to Rondout….
      It is no longer worth paying any attention to CMRR…

    2. Paul Payton

      Messrs. Garesche and Oberke, the railroad is making steady progress westward and with a little cooperation from the city and county could be making a lot more. It is a good neighbor, a taxpaying for-profit small business, not a tax drain like yet another underused standalone trail would be. Rail plus trail is a workable compromise which the CMRR has repeatedly said it would make. The CMRR stands to be a major tourist attraction at both ends of its line for now as well as making the connection to provide a valuable through run.

      Also, please note: (1) the railroad was never abandoned, just inactive, and is once again active and operating legally within its charter. (2) The entire right-of-way has also been cleared to track gauge (by volunteer labor, which is how virtually all work on the CMRR is done) except where there are washouts, where repairs are awaiting the county’s release of funds already granted to CMRR.

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