Mayor Steve Noble said this week that he’s satisfied with progress made by the Catskill Mountain Railroad in cleaning up their Cornell Street rail yard and he has no plans to take further enforcement action at the site.
Noble added he had no problem with waiting until May, when the CMRR’s lease with Ulster County expires and the stretch of track between the Cornell Street and Kingston Plaza is demolished to make way for a walking and biking trail. Noble’s remarks come as the railroad is facing a court-mandated Feb. 10 deadline to clear debris and remove all items not related to their tourist train operation from the yard.
“We plan to tell the court that they’ve been cleaning up the yard and we’ve seen a great deal of progress in the past few weeks,” said Noble “We’re satisfied with what they’re doing.”
The expiration of the railroad’s 25-year lease on the county-owned rail line could bring a quiet end to a two-and-a-half-year legal battle initiated by former mayor Shayne Gallo to evict the tourist railroad from its Midtown headquarters. Back in 2013, county officials, eager to get going on the plan to turn the old Ulster & Delaware railroad line into a rail trail, were working to void CMRR’s lease on the grounds that the privately owned railroad had not met its obligations under the terms of the agreement. At the same time, Gallo initiated a separate legal action targeting the rail yard. The city suit argued that the yard, which sits on county-owned property, was operating illegally because it had never obtained site plan approval from the city planning board. The suit also claimed that debris, unsafe conditions and potentially hazardous material stored at the yard constituted a threat to public health. At one point, Gallo ordered a city dump truck parked across the tracks to prevent the railroad from bringing old rail cars, which may have been contaminated with lead paint, from a site near the Hurley Flats to the Cornell Street yard for refurbishment. The rail line running through the heart of Midtown has long been a source of irritation to some residents, who complain about noise and diesel fumes as the tourist train makes its way from the Cornell Street to Kingston Plaza, where passengers embark.
The city’s lawsuit culminated in a Dec. 31, 2015 ruling when City Court Judge Phillip Kirchner issued an order that the railroad “must cease the use of the parcel as a rail yard” and “remove all debris” to the satisfaction of the city’s building department. CMRR President Ernest Hunt said the railroad had interpreted the order to mean that CMRR must use commercial cleaning in the yard and remove everything except equipment related to the tourist train operation. Hunt said that the railroad was in the process of taking two steam engines and other equipment out of the yard. One of the engines and other gear is expected to be trucked to Phoenicia, where the railroad runs a tourist train on another stretch of the old U&D line. “We saw it as a good opportunity to do a general cleanup of the yard,” said Hunt.
While that cleanup continues, so does the search for a new permanent home for the yard. Under the terms of a compromise agreement crafted by Hein and approved by county lawmakers, a tourist railroad will continue to operate alongside a walking path on a stretch of track between Kingston Plaza and a site a few miles outside of city limits. The county is expected to issue a request for proposals sometime next month and CMRR is expected to make its case to continue its operation. But the tracks between the plaza and Cornell Street will be ripped up and replaced with a pedestrian and bike path. When that happens, whichever railroad takes over the remaining track will need to find a new location for its trains and equipment.
Hunt said that it would be up to the county to identify a site for a new rail yard in its request for proposals. “We’re indifferent as to where it is as long as it’s a secure fenced-in location,” said Hunt. “But we have to have something in place before we move out. It’s not a Lionel train set that you can just back up and put in a box for awhile.”