The decision on the warrant at Special Town Meeting in November is not an approval or disapproval of the design of the shared use path improvement project. It is a vote to either ensure the entirety of Reformatory Branch Trail is owned by the town or to let stand an existing, but previously unknown condition, where ownership is split with over two dozen individual property owners that until recently did not understand their land rights and have not been paying property tax on that land.
Right of Way Approval for federally funded Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) projects must meet a high review standard. This review identified property ownership issues unnoticed by the Town or abutting private property owners since the railroad gave up its rights to the corridor. This included the discovery that almost the entirety of the half mile stretch from the Winchester Dr access point to the Hartwell Road Treatment Plant and access to the Concord section of the trail are currently owned by private parties and not the town.
Since the acquisition of the Reformatory Branch corridor from the B&M Railroad in 1963, the town has built a number of improvements along the corridor, including sewer in 1982, water mains in 1984 and fiber optic cables from Winchester Drive to Lavender Lane in 2016. This section of the corridor, often cited as an example of the accessibility of the trail, is in this condition only because of the 2016 improvements.
A Yes vote in November will allow the Town to gain control of the trail corridor through land acquisitions using funds approved by a 61% majority vote at Town Meeting in March. Because these acquisitions may require eminent domain, this vote will require a 66% supermajority.
Any one of the abutting property owners are now within their rights to challenge public use of the corridor. While the town believes that use of the corridor as an unimproved public trail could be defended if challenged in court by a property owner, this is not guaranteed. While existing utilities could be maintained, such as repair of a water main break, the town currently does not have the rights to make improvements such as those needed on the Evans Avenue sewer pump station.
If the Town votes No in November and allows ownership of the Reformatory Branch corridor to remain in the hands of dozens of private owners, what’s next?