With their lease of the former Ulster and Delaware railroad tracks due to expire on May 31, Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) is waiting for Ulster County to issue a Request for Proposals (RP) regarding the future use of the county-owned tracks. Meanwhile, the City of Kingston has obtained a court order requiring CMRR to remove its equipment and debris from the Cornell Street rail yard by February 10. At the same time, the railroad is seeking variances from the Shandaken Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a 2.5-acre rail yard near the Phoenicia train station.
CMRR president Ernie Hunt said negotiations are underway with the city of Kingston to allow the trains to remain at Cornell Street, while other equipment is moved out. Phoenicia residents, however, are worried the trains will be brought to the Phoenicia yard and are concerned about possible environmental hazards from renovation work to be done on the antique cars.
The CMRR leases tracks that stretch across the county from Kingston to Highmount, with gaps where tracks have washed out or fallen into disrepair. In 2013, county executive Mike Hein began trying to kick the railroad out of its 25-year lease, alleging failure to maintain the tracks. His plan to replace the tracks with a recreational rail trail has given way to a compromise rail-and-trail plan approved by the county legislature. With the lease about to expire, CMRR is hoping to continue operating its heritage rail rides within Kingston and from Phoenicia to Mount Tremper, ventures that have drawn substantial numbers of customers over the past few years. But will the county approve their plans?
“The county has to issue a Request for Proposals by March 15,” said Hunt. “As soon as that happens, we’ll respond. Our people have specifics that we want to respond with, and we have 45 days to respond, by the first of May.” Other potential operators may submit bids, and the county will evaluate all offers. Hunt said he’s not aware of any competitors, “but the county could be in touch with some. It’s a fairly small industry, and not that many would respond if there aren’t freight services involved.”
Also since 2013, the City of Kingston has been trying to get CMRR to clean up the Cornell Street rail yard. On December 31, 2015, City Judge Philip Kirschner ruled that as CMRR could neither prove that it had an approved site plan nor obtain approval from its landlord, Ulster County, it had to “cease the use of the parcel in question as a rail yard” and “remove all debris to the satisfaction of the City of Kingston Building Department” by February 10.
Asked whether the trains stored at Cornell Street will be coming to Phoenicia, Hunt replied, “We’re in discussion with the county and the city about removing equipment not directly related to rail operations. We’re leaving equipment that would be necessary to use in the case of a bid for an RFP. We’ve said we’re willing to take it away, but we need a location with a secure fence to prevent vandalism. Some of the things in Kingston could come to Phoenicia — the steam engine that the railway museum owns and some other things that they’re going to move, associated parts for the engine.”
The Phoenicia rail yard, alongside the historic train station, already contains an eight-car train of refurbished rolling stock, used for the tourist rides to Mount Tremper. On the track alongside it are seven cars in varying states of disrepair. The yard also contains a recently constructed building that accommodates two train cars and is used for restoration projects.
Anique Taylor, who lives down the road from the station, is worried about the possibility that the yard will become filled with decrepit train cars from Cornell Street and that further refurbishing operations will release toxic lead, asbestos, and other chemicals into the soil and air. With the railroad seeking to expand its operations to a parcel of land along the Esopus Creek, she is also concerned about the possibility of toxic substances polluting the creek — part of the New York City water supply — especially given the propensity for flooding.
“I’ve seen more cars coming in on flatbed trucks,” she said. “The Ulster County Department of Health found that trains outside of Kingston had painted surfaces with lead and asbestos. Anything that’s in or on those cars could be released when working on trains and can flake off and go into the ground. This area was deeply flooded during Hurricane Irene, with powerful, rushing water that tipped trains over and tore tracks up. If people are working on the trains, it’s even more of a threat. In order to do the work, they have to have solvents, and many of them are highly toxic.”
Hunt replied to this concern, saying, “As far as we know, there’s not asbestos on our equipment. There’s lead paint, which we scrape off and contain, take it out and dispose of it, then repaint. We don’t sandblast, which is a very messy process.”
The expanded rail yard proposal has been in works for some time, he said. “It’s just coincidentally going along with the end of the lease. We want official site plan approval for building the yard and eventually a maintenance building, similar to what we’d have in Kingston. We need a fenced-in, secure location, and an indoor location for maintenance, since it’s difficult to service the trains in the open, especially in winter.”
The rail yard would consist of a series of parallel tracks on two lots owned by CMRR north of Station Road. When asked if a fence would be built around the yard, Hunt said, “The property is already enclosed by a fence, but it’s hard to see. We don’t need as much security as in Kingston.” The site plan includes a 40-by-200-foot building for renovation and maintenance.
Hunt acknowledged that “a railroad runs on diesel fuel and motor oil, much like an auto shop but on a bigger scale. If we have to service an engine, we want to put it in a proper kind of building, to make sure it’s safer than just out in the open.”
ZBA member Mark Loete said that when Harry Jameson of the CMRR presented the building plans at the January 20 ZBA meeting, he showed the design of “a catchbasin to collect water runoff if they hose down the floor. The oil and petroleum products float to the top and are skimmed off by mechanical means, on the order of pints, not gallons.”
CMRR is seeking two area variances, which would allow them to build closer to the edges of the property than the permitted setbacks. They’re also requesting one use variance, since the railroad’s activity is considered light industrial, prohibited in the Hamlet Residential zone. The proposed building is 8000 square feet, which is over the ten percent permitted on one lot. However, CMRR is planning to remove a lot line and combine its two lots into one, for a total of 95,832 square feet, and therefore a density variance is not requested. ZBA member Joe Michaels noted that he is chief engineer on the project and is recused from voting or commenting on the application.
Jameson observed that the possibility of losing the lease on the tracks will constitute a hardship for the railroad, a justification for the requested variances. The structure is not expected to be built for at least two years, and if the lease goes down, CMRR might end up selling its stock to whatever company takes over the lease. In that case, Jameson said, “We have 16 acres, and it’s not out of the question to build a loop track” to continue providing small-scale rides.
In a phone conversation, Loete clarified the location of the property along the creek. “It is in the 100-year floodplain,” he said, “but there are a couple of small areas that are elevated enough that they are above the floodplain. They’re planning to build on one of those rises.”
Asked about the advisability of locating the rest of the rail yard on a floodplain, Loete answered, “There’s any risk building in a floodplain, except will this be an industrial use. It’s zoned Hamlet Residential. What they’ve been doing is not exactly residential, but they’ve been doing it since the 1870s. Does that mean they should be grandfathered in? They’re saying they won’t increase their activity, but parse that with shutting down the Kingston yard.”
Loete pointed out that the plans also have to pass county and state zoning reviews. He remarked, “The Shandaken board won’t be last word on this.”
The ZBA will hold a public hearing on the variances requested by CMRR. The hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, February 17, at the town hall, 7209 Route 28, Shandaken.