The Ulster County Planning Board has recommended that the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) be required to supply evidence in support of its request that the Shandaken Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) grant a use variance for a proposed 2.5-acre train yard and 8000-square-foot maintenance shed north of Station Road in Phoenicia. The ZBA voted unanimously (with Joe Michaels recused) to extend the public hearing on CMRR’s plans, giving the railroad a month to put together documentation in support of its request to permit train car renovation, a light industrial use, in the hamlet residential zone.
About 30 people attended the ZBA’s February 17 hearing, with several Phoenicia residents raising concerns about the environmental and esthetic effects of train repair work to be done in a residential area in the Esopus Creek floodplain. CMRR wishes to establish a location for its train cars if the county decides not to renew its lease on the county-owned tracks from Kingston to Highmount. The lease is due to expire May 31, and a request for proposals regarding the use of the tracks is scheduled to go out by March 15.
Anique Taylor, who lives near the Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM), a separate entity from CMRR, spoke of her opposition to the approval of the variances and presented the board with 33 letters from town residents who share her concerns. She stated that she is in favor of historical railroads and restoration of old trains, adding, “It’s a good thing to do. This is just not a good place to do it, with the risk of toxic substances so near to a residential area.”
She also gave the board photos of train cars in the present rail yard, showing peeling paint and broken walls. It was pointed out that those cars do not belong to CMRR but are owned by the museum, although they are presently sitting on tracks leased by CMRR. ESRM, which has done renovation of cars for years in the yard between High Street and Station Road, is shifting cars around while it lays track into the car barn it put up last year alongside the historic train station. The museum property is also in the floodplain and suffered damage from Hurricane Irene.
The county planning board asked for confirmation that the proposed CMRR maintenance building will be located on a rise above the flood level, while pointing out that the building will include a pit, sump, and skimmer for capturing oil. The county also raised the question of whether indicated storage locations of environmentally sensitive materials are sited within the floodplain.
Harry Jameson of the CMRR observed that if the lease is renewed, the railroad will need a place to work on its cars, and having a maintenance shed would address concerns cited by residents, including contamination, noise, dust. “Solvents can be contained, chipping and scaling can be captured,” he said. “It would reduce the impact. We’ve made it 200 feet long, but we could compromise, make it 100 feet. The [museum’s] car barn is 94 feet. Ours would be on the opposite side of the track, furthest from the residential area. Anique, you can’t even see our property from your house. We’re trying to be good neighbors. We’ve been conducting business since 1984.”
CMRR would not build the shed for at least two years. “We wouldn’t build until we have a lease,” said Jameson. “If we don’t get the lease, we’ll be selling our equipment,” including the trains currently at the Cornell Street yard in Kingston. He said there are no plans to bring those cars to Phoenicia. Although the city of Kingston ordered the cars removed, CMRR is negotiating to allow most of them to remain, with only the museum’s steam locomotive and associated equipment scheduled to be moved. Dakin Morehouse of ESRM said the locomotive will not be operated but will be kept as a static museum piece.
Tom Fraser, who lives opposite the museum’s car barn, asked whether it wouldn’t make more sense to do renovation work in Kingston’s urban environment rather than in the countryside. Jameson replied that the county seems intent on pushing the railroad toward the west end of the county and restricting its operations to the Phoenicia-to-Mount-Tremper tourist railroad currently in operation. “I’m a supporter of the railroad,” said Fraser. “I think it’s a fantastic thing for Phoenicia, but I don’t want to open the door to turning it into more of an industrial site. The hamlet is a tourist destination, and the railroad is part of that, but I don’t want it to go overboard.”
“It won’t get bigger,” Jameson assured him.
Joe Michaels, a member of the ZBA and chief engineer of the proposed CMRR project, had recused himself from voting and was sitting in the audience. He responded to Fraser’s concern by pointing out that other town residents use chainsaws, finishes, and effluents containing lead. “Plenty of artists have hordes of rusty junk that passes as art,” he remarked, prompting an outcry from some audience members. “We take precautions in what we do,” Michaels, who formerly worked in the power industry, went on. “We’re not untrained volunteers. I’ve been at this 40-odd years. I’m familiar with safe industry practices, and we train new volunteers. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than average homeowners do.”
Michaels said the railroad keeps no more toxic substances in storage than a homeowner or contractor or logger would have, and such materials are stored in double-packed drums and non-flammable cabinets. Regarding a rumor that asbestos had been found on cars located in Kingston, Michaels said the report referred to cars stored on Route 209 that had deteriorated in the weather. CMRR performed asbestos abatement and then sold the cars.
Rod Futerfas, an attorney engaged by Taylor, then observed that the issues raised in the evening’s discussion were irrelevant to the ZBA’s decision, which rests upon legal criteria. Jameson had offered no evidence to prove the railroad can pass the tests required to grant a use variance. In his decades of work on such cases, said Futerfas, “I’ve never seen someone get a use variance. It’s that hard to prove.”
The county planning board recommendation tallied with Futerfas’ assertion that the CMRR must offer documentation to prove four criteria: that it can’t get a fair financial gain from a permitted use; that the property is being affected by highly unusual circumstances; that the variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood; and that the hardship prompting the request for the variance was not self-created.
The ZBA asked the CMRR to put together materials proving their case. The public hearing will continue at the next ZBA meeting at the Shandaken town hall on March 16 at 7:30 p.m.