Tracks to nowhere: Will Catskill Mt. Railroad trains float away in a flood?

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR), having lost its lease on the tracks between Phoenicia and Mount Tremper, is facing a December 15 deadline for removal of its rolling stock from the Ulster County-owned rails. But it’s not easy to relocate tons of train cars when dealing with zoning regulations, floodplain requirements, and neighbors who oppose the storage of trains near their homes.

CMRR owns 2.5 acres of land between the Empire State Railway Museum property and the Esopus Creek, property that flooded during Hurricane Irene in 2011. The railroad’s engines, passenger coaches, and baggage cars are currently sitting near the Mount Tremper depot, where the tourist line used to drop off passengers but will no more, since the county has transferred the lease to Rail Explorers, which will operate rail bikes on the tracks starting next year.

A permit for grading and cleanup of the CMRR property, along with installation of ballast, ties, and rails, was granted by Shandaken building inspector Warren Tutt, who determined that the results of these activities would not constitute a risk in case of flooding. As trucks began to rumble onto the property, attorneys for the Phoenicia neighbors filed an appeal with the zoning board on November 22, calling the installation a violation of zoning code. Tutt rescinded the installation portion of the permit.


Harry Jameson of CMRR appeared before the Shandaken planning board on November 30 with an application for a special permit to install track and store trains on the property. He stated the cars would not be visible from the street, and there would be no work done on the cars. CMRR had failed to obtain a use variance from the zoning board in February, when the railroad had submitted plans for a maintenance barn on the land, which is zoned residential. The planning board agreed to study the new application and make a site visit.

At the December 6 town board meeting, Phoenicia resident Anique Taylor asked for clarification on whether storage of trains would be permitted on the property. Supervisor Rob Stanley said the issue is being approached from a floodplain perspective, which does not forbid driveways, train tracks, and other installations that do not pose a flooding risk. He said the town cannot halt activities that are legal just because they might be later used for illegal purposes.

“I called the floodplain manager,” said Stanley, “and FEMA does not address trains. We’re looking at it as a structure. If it’s not transportable within six months, if it can’t be driven away, it’s not considered mobile. If a train car is considered a structure, each car would require a floodplain engineering study, with anchoring or proof that it won’t float away in a flood.”

“But can they put trains on without a permit?” asked Taylor.

“By our estimation, no, but it’s not clearly addressed in our law,” replied Stanley. “They are applying as a public utility transportation storage facility.”

Taylor asked how CMRR could be considered a transportation facility when the tracks don’t go anywhere.

“It’s not for us to determine,” said Stanley. “The zoning board defines terms. But we’re staying diligent. People should come to the planning and zoning board meetings when the applications come up.”

When the planning board asked Jameson what the county would do if the trains were not removed from the tracks by the December 15 deadline, he said, “They could potentially seize them or sell them, but in this situation, we’re much like a landlord and tenant. There’s a process they have to go through with regard to evicting or seizing assets.” CMRR plans to sit down with the county and try to negotiate an extension of the deadline.

Meanwhile, said Stanley, Rail Explorers representatives have been talking with the Empire State Railway Museum about where to build the ticket booth for the forthcoming rail bike service.