Bike trail through Lynn hits bump over lease

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2011

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The effort to develop the Lynn section of a regional recreational trail faces uncertainty due to objections from city officials over the terms of a proposed MBTA lease of railroad property to the city.

Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy said she will not sign the agreement drafted by the MBTA in its current form because of concerns that it would expose the city to potential liability and make it responsible for insurance, maintenance, and other costs.

“For the great cost, I don’t see an equal benefit to signing the lease. So until the MBTA can relax its restrictions and take a little more responsibility for the conditions along the bike trail, I’m not going to put the city in the position of having each taxpayer in some small part fund that trail,’’ said Kennedy, reiterating remarks she made at a Sept. 27 meeting of the City Council’s Public Property Committee.

Lynn needs to secure the lease in order to develop the Lynn section of the approximately 9-mile trail that the nonprofit Bike to the Sea is seeking to develop.

The evolving Northern Strand Community Trail is intended to extend along the right-of-way of the former Saugus Branch rail line from Everett through Malden, Revere, and Saugus to Lynn, and along a designated on-road route from the end of the right of way to Lynn Shore Drive.

Everett and Malden have signed 99-year agreements with the MBTA to lease their sections of the old Saugus branch right-of-way at no cost. But to date, Lynn, Revere, and Saugus have not done so, with all three communities wrestling with similar concerns.

Active Lynn supporters of the trail are urging city leaders to find a way to resolve their legal and cost concerns.

“Lynn needs this,’’ said Mary Ellen Palermo. “All the other towns seem to be moving forward on this. Rather that having us as . . . the bad area you have to avoid, we want Lynn to be a nice part of the route. . . . It’s time that Lynn goes green.’’

Councilor at Large Dan Cahill, a member of the Public Property Committee, is also hoping the city can move forward.

“We know the possible exposures of liability, but at some point the city has to take a risk for what will be a beautiful public resource,’’ he said.

Following the Sept. 27 Public Property Committee meeting, the City Council voted to create a special committee to further study the issues surrounding the proposed lease, according to Ward 2 member Richard C. Colucci, who chairs the Public Property Committee and made the motion.

Lynn first outlined its objections to the draft lease in a letter that assistant city solicitor George Markopoulos sent to the MBTA on May 24.

In a recent interview, Markopoulos said the city is concerned that the proposed lease would make the city liable for damages should someone be injured on the trail. He said it would also require the city to indemnify, or exempt from liability, the T for any harm resulting from soil contamination unless Lynn purchased environmental insurance.

Markopoulos said a related concern is that the agreement would bar the city from testing the soil for contamination prior to entering the lease.

The city also objects to the costs it would need to bear, including the purchase of environmental and required regular liability insurance and the maintenance of public safety on the trail, Markopoulos said.

In a letter last May 31 responding to the city, Mark E. Boyle, the MBTA’s assistant general manager for development, noted that the agency had executed leases with Everett and Malden and that the T’s board had directed that similar leases be executed with Lynn, Revere, and Saugus.

“Although we fully understand the concerns you have raised, please note that the MBTA is willing to grant the lease rights to the city at no cost for 99 years. In return, however, the MBTA needs to be indemnified for any and all costs or acts that may arise from the Saugus branch,’’ Boyle said.

Boyle noted that Danvers, Topsfield, and Wenham had executed similar agreements with the T “and those communities have either completed or initiated the construction of bike paths.’’

“The MBTA is not in a position to alter the terms of the lease for each particular city/town,’’ Boyle said.

Markopoulos said his recommendation to the council was to establish a panel to explore in depth the concerns he had raised so that it has a clear sense of the costs and benefits of entering into the lease. The new committee is intended to do that.

Cahill said he believes there are ways the city can resolve its concerns, noting that it could obtain the required insurance coverage and offset the costs through grants.

Stephen Winslow of Malden, cofounder and a board member of Bike to the Sea, said other communities have “raised similar concerns to Lynn’s, and several laws were passed to address those, so I hope the council committee will look at those laws in more detail.’’

Winslow said getting access to the right-of-way in the near future would enable Lynn to take advantage of an opportunity to get the trail cleared at no cost.

Everett built its trail section through an agreement with the Iron Horse Preservation Society, under which the Nevada-based group removed the rails and ties and applied a stone dust surface at no charge in return for being able to keep the material it removed. Winslow said that in the limited time that Iron Horse remains in this part of the country, Lynn could arrange a similar deal.

The long-term goal of Bike to the Sea is to pave the right of way, but Winslow said clearing the path and laying down a firm surface will allow it to be used right away.

“This is an opportunity to get something done sooner rather than later,’’ he said.

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