Grafton & Upton Railroad seeks to take Hopedale land; hearing Wednesday

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com
    Posted Jul 16, 2019 at 4:19 PM Updated Jul 16, 2019 at 5:11 PM

    The state Department of Public Utilities will hold a hearing from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the
    Hopedale Junior-Senior High School. Hearings are normally held at the DPU’s Boston headquarters.

    HOPEDALE – A local railroad company is seeking state approval to take land alongside its tracks.

    Grafton & Upton Railroad Company President Michael Milanoski said the company tried for nine
    months to buy the 155-acre property on Hopedale’s West Street, but failed. The railroad is a 16.5-
    mile rail line that runs from North Grafton to Milford.

    “Notwithstanding diligent and reasonable efforts to acquire the property in Hopedale, the owner has
    been unwilling to sell the property to GURR,” the company’s petition to the state reads.

    The owners of 364 West St., listed as Charles E. Morneau and H.R. Nagel, trustees of the One
    Hundred Forty Realty Trust, did not return a request for comment.

    Milanoski said the company used a licensed appraiser to give the owners “fair market value,” but he
    didn’t give the value or any counteroffer. According to Hopedale assessor records, the property is
    valued at $448,754.

    “It’s significantly more than what our licensed appraiser is looking at,” Milanoski said, of the owners’
    assessment of the property’s worth. “The law does require us to pay fair market value, but fair
    market value has to be done objectively.”

    The state Department of Public Utilities will hold a hearing from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at Hopedale
    Junior-Senior High School on the subject. External hearings are relatively unusual for the
    department, which typically holds hearings at its Boston headquarters.

    State law allows the railroad to request approval to take the property by eminent domain. Should
    Grafton & Upton Railroad get the green light, the company will still have to pay the assessed fair
    market value. The property owner can fight the decision.

    According to the railroad’s petition to the state, the company needs the land to conduct “certain rail
    operations that are critical and essential to the ability of GURR to provide rail service that meets the
    demands of customers.”

    The company wants to use the land for a new transloading yard and additional tracks for storage,
    switching and maintenance. Milanoski said that means five new tracks on either side of the existing
    line, and likely some buildings.

    The petition says 364 West St. is the only property the company has identified that can
    accommodate the yard and tracks. The yard and tracks are needed to keep up with the company’s
    expansion, according to the petition.

    The petition labels the land, which is not developed, as not useful for “virtually any purpose.”

    “The property ... is bisected by the GURR line,” the petition reads, adding that the land “contains
    wetland areas and has a topography that is not suitable for virtually any purpose without substantial
    cutting and filling work.”

    If the land is secured, Milanoski said, the company will only develop the uplands. It doesn’t plan to
    do anything with wetlands and buffer areas, which are protected and cover more than half the
    property.

    Grafton & Upton Railroad ran afoul last year of local developer Philip Shwachman, whose Hopedale
    Properties LLC and Hopedale Industrial Center LLC own 77 acres of easements, water rights and
    the prominent, long-vacant former Draper factory buildings in Hopedale’s downtown.

    Shwachman accused the company of trying to take his land via eminent domain – the railroad runs
    through his property – and filed a lawsuit, which is still working its way through the courts, against
    the company and Hopedale.

.

    Grafton & Upton Railroad releases additional plans for proposed land take in
    Hopedale

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com
    Posted Aug 12, 2019 at 4:31 PM Updated Aug 12, 2019 at 7:08 PM

    HOPEDALE – Responding to a state request, the Grafton & Upton Railroad has released more
    information on its plans for a 155-acre piece of land in Hopedale.

    The railroad asked for the state’s permission to take the land, at 364 West St., by eminent domain
    in March, after failed negotiations to buy it from owner One Hundred Forty Realty Trust.

    The request triggered an avalanche of legal filings from residents, local agencies, and Hopedale
    officials. Last week, the state cited those requests when it asked the railroad to be more specific
    about its intent before making a decision.

    In documents submitted Aug. 7, railroad representatives argued the company needs to expand
    beyond the space it currently occupies in three rail yards – North Grafton, Upton, and Hopedale.

    “GURR is currently operating at maximum capacity with significant growth demand from its
    customers,” the filing reads. “In order to provide freight rail service as required, GURR must obtain
    additional rail yard and track space as the GURR has no additional land to expand in these
    existing yards.”

    The new documents include a map of the West Street property, showing sketched out tracks
    around the land’s existing tracks. The majority of the land is protected, and railroad officials have
    said they do not intend to develop the wetlands, except for a previously installed logging road.

    The company plans to add five tracks on either side of the existing track, capable of holding up to
    200 rail cars, and at least one building.

    The new documents also emphasize the positive environmental and economic impact of railroads,
    citing the state’s own Department of Transportation draft rail plan, released January 2018.

    “The benefits of freight rail include economic, environmental, and highway traffic congestion and
    road wear reduction,” the documents read, “providing transport for such commodities as
    newsprint/paper, waste/scrap, cereal grains, wood products, plastics/rubber, propane , basic
    chemicals, gravel, and nonmetal mineral products.”

    Again pointing to the state report, the railroad’s latest submission points to an estimated 75
    percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for every ton-mile of freight moved by rail instead
    of truck.

    The added information comes as yet another agency petitioned the state last week to intervene. A
    petition to intervene means the petitioner is asking for a metaphorical seat at the table as the state
    makes its decision.

    To date, about a hundred people and agencies have filed petitions to intervene.

    The new petitioner is the Franklin-based Metacomet Land Trust, a non-profit conservation
    organization serving 15 communities in the area, including Hopedale. In her letter to the state,
    President Lisa Mosczynski said the West Street property is “critical” to connecting two pieces of
    conservation land used for passive recreation – Upton State Forest and the Hopedale Parklands.

    In their response to the state, the railroad’s attorneys point out that the new information had
    already been presented to Hopedale and its Board of Selectmen over the course of two public
    meetings.

    Selectmen have said they didn’t feel railroad officials sufficiently answered their questions at those
    meetings. Railroad President Michael Milanoski has said the railroad won’t know precisely what it
    intends to do until officials and crews have access to the site after purchase. That latter point was
    reiterated in the railroad’s response to the state last week.

    Those interested in filing a petition to intervene have until Sept. 9 to do so.

.

    Hopedale officials, residents petition state in railroad land-taking

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com

    Posted Jul 31, 2019 at 6:08 PM Updated Jul 31, 2019 at 6:08 PM

    “We are concerned that the GURR (Grafton & Upton Railroad) rather than negotiating in good
    faith with property owners is invoking laws created in the 1800s putting all property owners along
    the 16.5 miles railway at risk of facing eminent domain taking,” Sarkisian’s request reads.

    HOPEDALE – The town, a local property owner and several residents are asking for closer
    involvement in a local railroad’s request to buy land alongside its tracks.

    The property in question, 155 acres at 364 West St., includes a section of the 16.5-mile Grafton &
    Upton Railroad, which runs from North Grafton to Milford.

    Railroad leadership wants to buy the land to build a transloading and storage yard around the
    existing tracks, which could include 10 additional tracks, and possibly some buildings.

    President Michael Milanoski said the company tried to buy the land from the current property
    owner, Charles E. Morneau and H.R. Nagel, trustees of the One Hundred Forty Realty Trust, but
    were unable to reach a deal after nine months of negotiations.

    Now, the railroad is appealing to the state’s Department of Public Utilities, to take the land by
    eminent domain. If granted, that means the state would allow the company to take the land, as
    long as the company can prove it is needed for essential railroad function.
    The railroad still needs to pay the owner, and the owner can fight the decision.

    As that request makes its way through the state’s hearing process, residents and local officials
    say they want a seat at the table.
    “That’s something the railroad welcomes,” Milanoski said. “We continue to want to partner with the
    town, as we have on other projects.”

    Selectmen this week voted to send a petition to intervene, which would allow officials to follow the
    case and even request documents. Lawyers employed by the town will get a chance to determine
    if the railroad’s request falls within broad and railroad-friendly laws, or if the town has any local
    power.

    “I use the reference to ‘Hamilton,’ the song about (being) in the room where it happened,” Town
    Administrator Steven Sette said. “It allows the town to be a party to anything having to do with the
    case.”

    The song from the famous musical is about not knowing how deals are made without being there.

    The property at 364 West St. borders Hopedale’s Parklands, a 275-acre tract of land around
    Hopedale Pond preserved for conservation and passive recreation.

    “The Parklands, established at the end of the 19th century, is the jewel of Hopedale,” selectmen
    Chairman Brian Keyes said in the meeting this week where selectmen compiled their request to
    the state. “The Board of Selectmen has a fiduciary responsibility to preserve and protect the
    Parklands and is concerned that activities at the site may adversely impact the use of this town
    property.”

    Also at the meeting, Keyes said the decision could affect the whole town, citing environmental
    concerns. Sette said the land contains a possible future wellhead for the town, and pointed to the
    wetlands on the property.

    Two other nearby property owners have also requested intervenor status – Judith Sarkisian and
    Dave and Laurie Mazzola – and more residents and the town’s Water and Sewer Department
    have asked for extensions to file requests of their own.

    “We are concerned that the GURR (Grafton & Upton Railroad) rather than negotiating in good
    faith with property owners is invoking laws created in the 1800s putting all property owners along
    the 16.5 miles railway at risk of facing eminent domain taking,” Sarkisian’s request reads.

    In one filing this week, nearly 100 residents asked for an extension, so they, too, could file the
    petition to intervene, though that petition was not in the state system as of Wednesday.

    The group is called Residents to Protect Hopedale’s Resources, and their request says they might
    hire engineers or consultants.
    In a separate filing, Philip Shwachman, whose companies - Hopedale Properties LLC and
    Hopedale Industrial Center LLC - own 77 acres of buildings, water rights and easements in town,
    also petitioned to intervene.

    Some of his water rights run through the property, he said in the filing.

    Shwachman is involved in a lawsuit against several entities – including town officials and boards
    and Grafton & Upton Railroad leadership – in which his lawyer accuses the railroad of trying to
    take his property by eminent domain.

    In the West Street request, Milanoski said the railroad offered “fair market value” determined by a
    licensed appraiser, though he did not disclose the amount. The property owner, he said,
    countered with offers that were too high. According to local assessor’s records, the lot is worth
    $448,754.

    “The railroad does not justify why it requires such a substantial tract, raising the possibility that its
    activities will not be limited solely to a transloading yard,” Keyes said, at this week’s selectmen’s
    meeting. “Given the uncertainties surrounding the railroad’s intentions for the property, the town
    should be permitted to intervene in order to engage in discovery with respect to the railroad’s
    plans.”

    Milanoski said he won’t have specific plans until the railroad owns the property and can survey it,
    but that – aside from a logging road – the company does not plan to develop any wetlands or the
    buffer zones meant to protect them.

    “We want to do things in the most safe and efficient way,” Milanoski said. “It behooves the railroad
    to make sure everything is environmentally sensitive.”

    The tracks are located in the property’s “uplands,” he said, away from the wetlands.

    A transloading yard will help the railroad expand to meet significant growth in the rail
    transportation industry in recent years, according to company leadership. Milanoski said his
    industry’s growth in Massachusetts is second only to air freight.

    It’s unclear when the next state hearing date will be.

    Google Earth view. Mill River on right. Town line
    shown in white. G&U track meanders across.

    A closer look at eminent domain as Hopedale waits for the state to decide on claim on
    155 acres of land

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com
    September 9,  2019

    Earlier this summer, the Grafton and Upton Railroad petitioned the state to take 155 acres of land in
    Hopedale without the owners’ permission – a legal move called eminent domain.

    The state, which hasn’t ruled yet, was subsequently flooded with requests for more information, coming
    from town committees to a regional land trust interested in conservation. One document featured
    signatures from about 100 Hopedale residents.

    Hopedale officials, residents petition state in railroad land-taking

    The Daily News looked through state law and Department of Public Utility records, then spoke with a
    legal expert in real estate, Michael Lonzana, to learn more. Lonzana is principal attorney of Needham-
    based MLL Law, LLC, specializing in real estate-based disputes, negotiation and litigation. He’s also on
    the real estate section council for the Massachusetts Bar Association, serving as vice chairman last
    year.

    What is eminent domain?

    At its core, eminent domain is the legal taking of private land without the permission of the landowner.
    The entity doing the taking must pay the landowner fair market value.

    Typically, Lonzana said, eminent domain is executed through a government body, to do something for
    the greater public use, like build a highway.

    Eminent domain is a federal issue, rooted in the Fifth Amendment, though states have some flexibility
    in local applications. In Massachusetts, companies that operate public utilities – arguably a railroad –
    can petition the state Department of Public Utilities for permission to use eminent domain.

    That is what’s happening in the Hopedale case in front of the state now – the Grafton and Upton
    Railroad has petitioned the department for permission to take 155 acres at 364 West St. for a
    transloading and storage yard that would include tracks alongside the existing line that runs through
    the property, and some buildings.

    Let’s talk about railroads and eminent domain.

    Railroads have their own statutes under eminent domain in Massachusetts laws, and they’re fairly
    broad.

    “If a railroad corporation requires land .... and is unable to obtain it by agreement with the owner, it
    may apply to the department, which, after notice to the owner and a hearing, may prescribe the limits
    within which it may be taken without his permission,” Chapter 160, Section 83 of the Massachusetts
    General Laws reads, “and the corporation may, within one year after the decree, take such property by
    eminent domain ....”

    Section 83 refers to some preceding sections, which list acceptable purposes. Those include building
    new tracks, “cuttings, embankments, and for procuring stone and gravel,” stations, car houses,
    roundhouses, freight houses, yards, docks, wharves, elevators, and “other structures.”

    Lonzana said it looks like the decision is up to the state’s discretion, but the standard of proof –
    meaning, what the railroad has to prove to the state to see eminent domain granted – isn’t clear.

    A representative from the department did not respond to that question by the Daily News’ deadline.

    How has the DPU ruled in the past?

    Before the Hopedale case, there hadn’t been an eminent domain petition before the Department of
    Public Utilities since 2010.

    The vast majority of cases from 1995 to 2010, put forward by companies managing railroads,
    electricity, gas, and water, were withdrawn. Two were granted, and there is no record in the department’
    s online archives of a case where the petitioner’s request was denied.

    Withdrawals were often because the petitioner and the property owner came to an agreement where
    the property owner sold the land to the petitioner. In at least one case, the property owner granted the
    petitioner an easement instead, letting the gas company in question work on pipelines.

    The eminent domain process can be used as leverage, Lonzana pointed out, either to get the property
    owner to the negotiating table or to get a better price on the land. Most people can’t do anything if they
    want to buy a house and the owner sets a ridiculously high price, Lonzana said. Railroads are able to
    turn to eminent domain.

    “I have a feeling that probably what’s going to wind up happening is they’ll come to a deal at some
    point,” Lonzana said.

    Grafton and Upton Railroad President Michael Milanoski said he hopes to be able to work something
    out with the property owner – who he says has not provided a counter offer.

    “That’s always our preference,” Milanoski said. “We’re hoping that all parties can come to the table and
    negotiate a private to private sale. ... That value has to be based upon fair market conditions.”

    How likely is it the railroad will succeed if the case isn’t withdrawn?

    Again, it’s hard to know without the standard of proof. Considering the number of people asking to be
    involved – at least one even outright asked the state to deny the petition – the environmental concerns
    at play, and the age of the statute, though, Lonzana said this could be a long road for the Grafton and
    Upton Railroad.

    “Because these laws were most likely implemented in the 1800s, when railroads were the dominant
    commercial entities,” Lonzana said, “there would most likely be a strong public policy argument against
    invoking these laws, which are arguably antiquated and not applicable to today’s world.”

    Milanoski echoed his company’s filings with the state in pointing out how rail transportation fits in with
    the state’s transportation plan. Demand for transportation is growing, he said, and Grafton and Upton
    Railroad is expanding to keep up.

    “Freight rail is a critical component of the Massachusetts economy,” he said.

    Moving products via rail is more efficient and environmentally friendly than trucking, he said, and cuts
    down on traffic, as well as wear and tear on roads.

    “You’d be adding hundreds of thousands of trucks to the (state’s) infrastructure without freight rail,” he
    said.

    Who determines what “fair market value” is?

    That is likely not up to the state, Lonzana said. Determining fair market value will probably be a
    separate legal proceeding, where both parties will hire appraisers. Fair market value also isn’t the
    same as the locally assessed value of the property, he added. That’s often much lower.

    Hopedale assessed the 364 West St. property at $448,754.

    What’s next for Hopedale?

    The next date of interest in the Hopedale eminent domain case is Sept. 16.

    That’s when the state is expected to let the many people who petitioned to intervene – essentially
    asking to be kept in the loop as the case moves forward – know if their petitions were granted.


    Hopedale residents ask Town Meeting to decide fate of land deal

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com
    @AlisonBosma
    Posted Oct 1, 2020 at 3:18 PM Updated Oct 1, 2020 at 3:18 PM

    The most recent petition asks selectmen to transfer the right of first refusal — and therefore the power over
    whether or not to buy the property — to Town Meeting.

    HOPEDALE — Residents will get a chance to weigh in on a massive land deal with the Grafton and Upton
    Railroad at a Special Town Meeting on Oct. 24.

    “If we pass on this opportunity, we lose the land forever. We’re chasing the railroad forever,” Water and Sewer
    Commission Chairman Edward Burt said during a meeting with selectmen this week. “We know that it is an
    important property for the community for a number of reasons, and as an owner of that property you’re in
    absolutely the best position to manage what you need to and how you want to work with the railroad.”

    Grafton and Upton Railroad petitioned the state last summer to take 155 acres at 364 West St. by eminent
    domain, meaning the company would pay the owner, Lincoln-based One Hundred Forty Realty Trust, but not
    require the trust’s permission to take it. The railroad already runs through the property.

    That land abuts the town’s beloved Parklands, a large wooded parcel with walking trails, and which may also
    contain drinking water sources. Railroad leadership has said it plans to keep development very near to the
    existing line, leaving the remaining acreage largely alone.

    In July, the railroad and the trust negotiated a sale for about $1.2 million, that would render the state
    proceedings moot, and bring the total acreage up to about 175. Such a sale, however, allows selectmen the
    right of first refusal, meaning they can choose to buy about 130 acres of the land for the same price, instead of
    the railroad.

    The railroad then provided the town with a deal. Roughly outlined, the town would waive its right of first refusal,
    and the railroad would give a wide berth to any drinking water well sites. Talks about land swaps, where the
    railroad would give Hopedale land closest to the Parklands and even help create more walking trails, were also
    suggested.

    The case has generated great interest in the community, with hundreds of residents, as well as local groups and
    town committees, asking the state to be part of the initial proceedings. The petition before selectmen this week
    was the second from residents since the land deal came to the table a month ago. The first petition asked
    selectmen to exercise their right of refusal and buy the land.

    Boasting 361 verified signatures from Hopedale residents, the most recent petition asks to transfer the right of
    first refusal — and therefore the power over whether or not to buy the property — to Town Meeting. Town-hired
    attorney Peter Durning said he is researching whether that is possible.

    “I’m looking into the issue of whether or not a vote at a public Town Meeting would suffice. ... It’s not clear to me
    that it would,” Durning said. “I’m not (yet) expressing a firm conclusion one way or another.”

    Because the petition far exceeds the 100 signatures required to put the request on the Special Town Meeting
    warrant, it will appear there, regardless of whether it is legally viable.

    The town is already struggling financially. Officials asked residents for a tax override to fund basic operating
    costs for the second year in a row last month. Though last year’s override was approved, the $1.3 million
    request this year failed, and the town is still searching for $300,000 to close a budget gap for the current fiscal
    year.

    According to the town’s treasurer and tax collector, the first year’s payment on a $1.2 million bond would be
    $116,000. The town Finance Committee wrote a 23-page report recommending that selectmen buy the
    property. That report referenced possible donations from local groups interested in keeping the property in town
    hands, but emphasized that no commitment has been secured from those groups.

       Read the Finance Committee’s report

    Next steps

    This week, selectmen agreed to hire Quincy-based Environmental Partners Group to conduct an environmental
    study of the land for about $10,000. The study is meant to look at the viability of the area as a water resource
    and the impact of the railroad’s proposed access road. It’s expected to take about two weeks.

    “The reason why we wanted to do this is to protect all you residents when we do try to purchase the land,” said
    Selectman Louis Arcudi III, “so it gives us one extra piece of information that we are going to need anyway, to
    battle, if we go to a lawsuit.”

    Residents attending the virtual Monday night meeting during which selectmen made the decision expressed
    anger that selectmen had yet to buy the land, pointing to the petitions, as well as the support of other town
    boards and committees.

    “I just wish people would just take a little bit of time to understand we’re trying to work collaboratively with the
    town to make sure we cross all our ’T’s and dot all our ’I’s,” Arcudi said. “We’re not trying to prove every board
    was wrong. If that’s the case, then (fellow Selectman) Brian (Keyes) and I could have voted on this two months
    ago.”

    At least one person said she was worried the study might reveal the land was not as important to the town’s
    water supply as previously thought.

    “I don’t want the land to go to the railroad,” resident Sean Reilly said, echoing a distrust of the railroad voiced by
    other residents. “I don’t care what that environmental study says. I want the land for the residents.”

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.

    Can land deal be derailed? Hopedale resident group pushes for 130-acre land buy. They say it
    is needed to protect the drinking water.

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com
    @AlisonBosma
    Posted Oct 21, 2020 at 3:02 PM Updated at 8:35 AM

    Grafton and Upton Railroad has produced a deed showing it now owns the land, though the attorney for the town
    contends that Hopedale still has the right to buy about 130 acres of it.

    HOPEDALE — The drive to a trailhead on a controversial 130-acre piece of land in Hopedale is saturated in
    color.

    The Upton State Forest stretches away from the road in a riot of orange, red and yellow. Leaf-cloaked limbs
    reach across the paved interruption, encasing the street in a woodland tunnel, where slices of gray sky contrast
    the bright display. Hopedale’s 280-acre Parklands and the controversial 130-acre parcel next door provide more
    of the same.

    The stunning scenery is wonderful, but according to a group of more than 400 residents arguing the town should
    buy the land, its real treasure is water.

    “It’s not a tree-hugger thing,” Liz Reilly said. “If you don’t have water, the town’s done.”

    Reilly is part of a group of hundreds of residents drawn together in response to the Grafton and Upton Railroad’s
    yearlong attempt to take or buy 155 acres off Hopedale’s West Street. As of last week, the railroad produced a
    deed showing it now owns the land, though the attorney the town is using for the case contends that Hopedale
    still has the right to buy about 130 acres of it.

    “Once we lose the land, we’re totally at their mercy,” said resident Glenda Hazard, walking a wooded trail through
    the property Tuesday. Hazard, a former managing editor of the Milford Daily News, is among the group opposing
    the purchase by the railroad.

    A study by Quincy-based Environmental Partners, ordered by selectmen at the beginning of the month, found
    that the land off West Street is close to the town’s current drinking water sources, and may also contain future
    drinking water sources. That’s something the town may soon need, the study found, as its current wells are
    shallow and aren’t providing as much water as they used to.

    The viability of new water sources on the land can’t be confirmed without further, on-the-ground study, but the
    company said town ownership of the land would protect its current water supply.

    “It’s just absolutely critical that we protect not only our current drinking water supply, but our future drinking water
    supply,” Dona Neely said.

    In addition to the resident group, several town boards and the Blackstone River Watershed Association have
    endorsed buying the land.

    The railroad has said it plans to put in a service road, but otherwise steer clear of any conservation area or
    potential drinking water sites, and build extra tracks and possibly buildings near its existing tracks on the
    property. Company officials also outlined a broad proposal for land swaps to expand Hopedale’s Parklands, if the
    town gives up its right to buy the land.

    The proposed plans haven’t been much more detailed, and residents said this is not enough information. They
    want to know more about what types of material the railroad will send through and store on the property, and are
    worried that those, and the service road itself, could pollute the groundwater.

    “Giving away your rights to your property without a plan is like giving somebody a blank check,” Hazard said.

    The town has until Nov. 7 — though the town’s attorney, Peter Durning, said he could make the case that the
    town has 120 days after the COVID-19 emergency orders are lifted — to decide whether it wants to buy the land,
    a decision that rests with selectmen. The purchase price is not clear, but officials have been estimating it could
    cost $1.2 million.

    Selectmen have hinted that they are concerned about having to battle an expensive lawsuit from the railroad.

    “We have to decide what’s right for our town,” Hazard said. “Do we not do that because they threaten us?”

    Representatives from the resident group said they don’t think the railroad would win such a lawsuit.

    “Appeasing a bully never works,” said Dave Sarkisian, an Upton resident whose property straddles the Hopedale
    line, a portion of which is next to the 130 acres.

    Once it became evident that the town could buy the land, the original group ballooned to about 400, organizers
    said, attending Zoom meetings for town boards in bulk, circulating petitions, and hunting for funding.

    “This is our town,” Reilly said. “This is 5% of our land. This is our water supply.”

    One of the petitions asked for an article at the Oct. 24 special Town Meeting, allowing residents to weigh in on
    the decision. The town clerk certified 361 of the 385 signatures — well over the 100 required — and residents will
    get a chance to vote on whether to buy the property.

    Durning said he is not sure if the Town Meeting vote will be binding. Residents in the group said overwhelming
    support will at least send selectmen a message.

    “We just have a chance to do the right things here,” Reilly said, “and we want to take it.”

    The funding aspect looked like a major hurdle at first. Hopedale voters just rejected a $1.3 million tax override
    this fall, the second tax override town officials have pitched in as many years to fund basic operating costs as the
    town has struggled with its finances.

    Representatives from the residents group Tuesday said they see the land buy as a less complicated issue than
    the town’s finances, because it’s a one-time expense and they know exactly what the money will do. The group is
    optimistic that they might also be eligible for state grants.

    “The cost of not buying the land is far greater than the cost of buying it,” Neely said.

    On top of that philosophy, the group says a local charitable organization, Hopedale Foundation, has agreed to
    pay a total of $750,000 in installments toward the purchase price. Town Administrator Diane Schindler said
    Wednesday morning that the town has yet to receive an official notice of the award, and the foundation did not
    respond to the Daily News by deadline Wednesday.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.

    Click here to see the page on the Special Town Meeting
    or October 24, 2020, that voted on this matter

    Hopedale Special Town Meeting voters OK fiscal 2021 budget, push for land deal

    By Lauren Young / Daily News Staff
    Posted Oct 24, 2020 at 8:02 PM Updated Oct 25, 2020 at 1:49 PM

    After Hopedale voters rejected a $1.3 million budget override in September, hundreds of them approved an amended
    town budget on Saturday, along with a major piece of land to prevent a local railroad from developing on it.

    HOPEDALE — Hundreds of residents voted to approve a revised town budget and to encourage the acquisition of a key
    piece of property on Saturday at Special Town Meeting.

    Town Moderator Gene Phillips said it was the biggest Town Meeting crowd he had never seen in Hopedale, estimating
    about 400 residents showed up to the outdoor meeting to vote. A line of voters stretched so far around the Community
    House lawn, that the meeting began a half-hour after its scheduled 1 p.m. start.

    Amending the fiscal year 2021 omnibus budget was the primary reason for the meeting, said Phillips. The budget of
    $24,831,604 was passed unanimously by voters, just a few weeks after they overwhelmingly rejected a $1.3 million tax
    override in September.

    That left the town to deal with an approximate $330,000 budget gap.

    Finance Committee Chairman Chris Hodgens said the town achieved a balanced budget without an override through
    some major expenditure changes, which included a $342,513 reduction to the School Department budget and a
    $146,686 decrease in estimated insurance premium costs.

    The town also received more state aid than initially expected, he said. Despite the cuts, he said the town is not struggling
    financially.

    “I would like to correct a misunderstanding that some may have, and I’m sure you’ve all heard or seen in print,” he said,
    referring to statements of Hopedale having financial issues. “Now I’ve only been on the Finance Committee for a couple
    of months, but from what I have seen, this perception is not true. Hopedale is in a sound financial condition. Our elected
    officials have charted a prudent financial course that has earned Hopedale a very high rating in financial markets. This
    current budget reflects that, and also reflects the will of the voters.”

    In 2019, Hopedale voters voted to approve a $430,000 tax override, but rejected the larger proposal this year. Hodgens
    said neither vote was indicative of the town’s state of finances.

    “We are not here because of mismanagement or financial strife, we are here to give voters the budget they demanded at
    the polls — it’s that simple,” he said.

    Resident and former Finance Committee Chairman Sam Hockenberry spoke in support of amending the budget.

    “I think that this is honestly the best-case scenario that we could have hoped for, given the vote that happened in
    September,” he said.

    Hundreds of residents have been asking the town to buy a parcel on 364 West St. before the Grafton and Upton Railroad
    begins development there. On Saturday, residents overwhelmingly supported the town going forward with that move.

    Voted in three separate articles, residents approved the town buying the property, comprising about 155 acres, to be
    preserved and kept as natural space.

    Town Attorney Peter Durning said approving Article 3 gives the town the right of first refusal, which means the town has
    the right to buy a portion of the land — about 130.18 acres — for the same price (about $1.2 million) instead of the
    railroad. That article was passed with only one person voting “no.”

    “It can’t be understated just how important this property is to the town of Hopedale,” said Ed Burt, the town’s Water and
    Sewer Commission chairman. According to recent studies performed by an engineering and environmental firm for the
    town, he said researchers found it would significantly increase the town’s public water supply exploration and ensure
    future land issues are consistent with the protected water supply.

    Board of Selectman Chair Brian Keyes noted at the beginning of the meeting that, while some have said that buying the
    land on West Street will not affect the budget, he said he “respectfully disagree(s) with that.”

    “I’ve yet to be presented a ... formal recommendation or concrete plan as to how one is going to pay for it if we choose to
    pay for it,” Keyes said last week, according to a Daily News story.

    For months, hundreds of residents have vocalized their wish to have the town buy the land during Board of Selectman
    meetings and on social media. Keyes said he wanted to clarify some things that have been “lost in translation,” and that
    the board sometimes feels criticized for doing its job.

    “We never lost sight of what we’re elected to do for all of you,” he said. “We serve you. We understand the will of the
    people. It feels like we’ve been vilified for doing something we also feel is our obligation, and that obligation is to always
    look at two sides of an issue. We can’t just overwhelmingly jump into siding with the overwhelming majority. You elect us
    to be able to look at the other side of the coin.”

    It’s still unclear whether the vote to buy the land is legally binding, and selectmen have delayed a decision.

    LED streetlights approved

    About three years ago, the town began a project to switch all town lights to LED, and it was finally approved, said Phillips.
    On Saturday, voters approved the town to go ahead with this project, costing $282,693, and to begin the transition. In all,
    it’s expected to save the town about $1 million in energy costs.

    Lauren Young writes about politics, social issues and covers the town of Franklin. Reach her at 774-804-1499
    or lyoung@wickedlocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurenatmilford.

    Town says it retains right to buy most of disputed land

    By Alison Bosma
    Daily News Staff
    Oct 30 2020

    HOPEDALE— The town filed a legal complaint and preliminary injunction against the Grafton and Upton Railroad
    Company on Wednesday, after the company began clearing brush this week on a controversial piece of land.

    “We’re disturbed, but not surprised,” said Liz Reilly of the railroad’s activity, “and we’re grateful that the town has taken
    quick action.”

    Reilly is part of a resident group advocating for the town to purchase at least part of the land in question, about 155
    acres off West Street. The town’s attorney, Peter Durning, has said Hopedale has the right to buy about 130 acres of it.

    After more than a year of trying to buy, then take the property through eminent domain, the railroad settled on a price
    with the trust that owned it and, as of Oct. 14, is the new landowner.

    “In regards to the property that is owned and controlled by the Grafton and Upton Railroad Company for future railroad
    use,” company President Michael Milanoski wrote in an email Thursday, “this Industrial Zoned Land has been privately
    purchased for a major expansion of the railroad that has been in the works for several years.”

    Reilly and the rest of the resident group, along with the town’s water commissioners and backed by an environmental
    study ordered by selectmen, say the land is key to Hopedale’s drinking water.

    “I’m hoping that the Board of Selectmen will be successful with their efforts to prevent further work on the site,” said
    Dona Neely, another member of the resident group, who said she was “disappointed and concerned” about the railroad’
    s activity. “The more that land is cleared, the less efficient it will become in its important role as the watershed.”

    Milanoski said the railroad expects to invest nearly $20 million into the site over the next couple of years. The land
    already has the company’s tracks running through it, and Milanoski has previously said plans include laying five tracks
    on either side of the existing track, and putting up at least one building.

    The company president has said the railroad intends to leave wetlands on the property alone, but will develop a
    previously installed logging road.

    “…it is of great disappoint(ment) to the railroad that due to the interference of external groups the Board of Selectmen
    were not allowed to complete their due diligence and finalize a public private partnership with the railroad that would
    have benefited the town in the longrun,” Milanoski wrote.

    He is referring to a proposal in which the railroad would have promised to steer clear of potential wellheads and
    negotiate land swaps to expand the town’s 280acre Parklands, if selectmen gave up their right to buy the land.

    Durning said the town has until at least Nov. 7 to decide whether to buy the land, but that he could likely make the case
    that the timetable is paused until statewide COVID-19 emergency orders are lifted.

    “It was readily apparent that they had started preliminary clearing,” said Upton resident Dave Sarkisian, whose property
    is split between Upton and Hopedale, and butts against the controversial land. “No big trees down, just brush and
    making some paths, and getting their ducks in a row.”

    He first noticed activity on Tuesday, he said.

    Milanoski said the company has “cleared some limited brush areas” to allow access to the site, and has begun a detailed
    topographical survey and wetland delineation.

    “I first need to address a public safety issue, there are people walking the railroad tracks and railroad property that puts
    them in danger and our train crew that is in clear violation of MGL 160 § 218 …” Milanoski wrote Thursday.
    “Unfortunately, in Massachusetts there are annually dozens of injuries on railroads throughout the state with people
    trespassing.”

    Sarkisian said he was able to see the work the railroad has done and take pictures without crossing onto railroad
    property. A Daily News story earlier this month included photos of residents at the tracks during a site visit.

    Hopedale’s legal action Wednesday requests a preliminary injunction, likely aimed at the work being done on the land.

    “We’re just waiting to see how the process plays out at this point,” Sarkisian said. “We’re kind in the wait-and-see
    pattern.”

    According to Land Court documents, a hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for 10 a.m. next Wednesday.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.


    Hopedale moves to own railroad land

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com
    @AlisonBosma
    Posted Nov 2, 2020 at 2:36 PM Updated Nov 2, 2020 at 2:52 PM

    HOPEDALE – After months of deliberation that included an environmental study, resident uproar, and a series of special
    Town Meeting votes, selectmen voted to preserve about 155 acres off West Street for the town.

    “This has been an exhausting and emotional effort for all of us,” said Brian Keyes, one of Hopedale’s two selectmen and
    the board’s chairman.

    The land is currently owned by the Grafton and Upton Railroad Company, which acquired it from a Lincoln-based trust
    after more than a year of negotiations and filings with the state Department of Utilities. The railroad intends to use the
    section of the land around its existing tracks, according to company president Michael Milanoski, as part of a major
    expansion of the business.

    Part of those negotiations triggered Hopedale’s right of first refusal, meaning selectmen could buy 130 acres of the land
    for the same price as the railroad, according to the town’s attorney, Peter Durning.

    Selectmen cited both the town’s lack of funds and the railroad’s proposal of a public-private partnership that could have
    included both tax revenue and a land swap in favor of Hopedale’s Parklands, as reason to look into not exercising their
    right, though the details of that partnership remained vague.

    Durning said the town had until at least Nov. 7 to decide whether to buy the land, and potentially longer under COVID-
    19 emergency orders. A large group of residents demanded selectmen take ownership of the land to protect the town’s
    watershed and nearby drinking water sources.

    “With over 32 years of service that I’ve given this town, six of it on the conservation commission, nine years on the board
    of health, yes, I do know, and yes, I am passionate, and yes, I do care about our wetlands, and I also care about our
    water supply,” Selectmen Chairman Louis Arcudi III said Friday. “I need to make sure that I’m guiding the town in the
    right direction, with all the facts and the right information, and that’s exactly what I did over the 120 days.”

    Residents attended public Zoom videoconference meetings in droves in recent months. Discussion between selectmen
    and residents was sometimes strained, with selectmen saying they were using their allotted time to look into the issue as
    deeply as possible, and residents urging swifter and more decisive action.

    “We’re elected officials and we’re selectmen in this town, but at the end of the day we’re fathers of children just like you,
    we value the land, we value the water, we bathe in it, we drink it,” Keyes said. “To suggest we don’t care about the
    environment ... is just unfair.”

    Selectmen’s Friday votes had two parts. First, Keyes and Arcudi voted to exercise their right of first refusal, and buy 130
    acres at the site for a little under $1.2 million.

    Second, the board voted to take about 25 additional acres of wetland by eminent domain.

    “It is a critical aspect of the goals that were articulated in terms of controlling these parcels for the benefit of protecting
    the town water supply,” Durning said of the additional 25 acres.

    That cost is a little less straightforward. October Town Meeting put side $25,000 for the 25 acres. Durning said the town
    has a quitclaim deed showing the railroad bought the land for just $1, but that local assessments put the value closer to
    $400,000.

    “There is a record established of the railroad valuing this property quite low,” Durning said, “so that will be an interesting
    aspect.”

    As of late Monday morning, railroad president Milanoski said the company hasn’t received any court documents or
    filings regarding the Board of Selectmen votes, which were taken Friday evening.

    Hopedale filed a complaint last week against the railroad in land court, for preliminary work the company has done, such
    as clearing brush, on the property.

    The complaint includes an injunction to stop that work, a hearing for which is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

    It’s not clear what happens next, but the case is likely to move into the legal system, as the town and railroad have both
    laid claim to the property.

    “I wouldn’t say this is over,” Keyes said Friday. “It’s probably just the beginning.”

    Durning cited possible legal expenses at up to $200,000.

    “I believe we have a very defensible (legal) position,” Durning said.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.

Click here to go to the petition.

    Hopedale and local railroad consider mediation in land dispute

    Alison Bosma
    The Milford Daily News
    December 4, 2020

    HOPEDALE — Mediation might be the next step in a dispute between the town and a local railroad over more
    than 100 wooded acres off West Street.

    Both the town and the Grafton & Upton Railroad say they are legally entitled to at least some of the 155
    acres, with the railroad staking claim to all of it, and the town claiming about 130 acres.

    The town asserts that the land is critical to protecting current and future drinking water sources, while the
    railroad argues it needs the land to expand its business, and has pointed to a federal exemption that
    overrides state and local laws. A track already runs through the property, but the railroad wants to add more
    tracks and structures alongside it.

    Local officials had said they wanted to see a more detailed plan than Grafton & Upton Railroad has so far
    provided.

    In late October, the town filed an injunction against the railroad, demanding the state Land Court stop the
    railroad from development while lawyers work out who owns the land.

    More:Hopedale targets railroad in legal complaint over land

    The judge ordered both parties to participate in a mediation screening. A screening is not mediation itself,
    the town’s attorney in this case, Peter Durning, emphasized.

    “As the judge noted, based on her review of the materials, there are thorny issues with this case,” Durning
    said. “The judge was quick to note that she would have ordered the parties to conduct a mediation to resolve
    their differences if she could, but that her power does not extend that far.”

    The town’s injunction was originally denied, but both the town and railroad agreed this week to the
    screening, with Boston-based firm REBA Dispute Resolution Inc. The land court proceeding was therefore
    paused until Jan. 25, when the parties are expected to report on their progress with mediation, as well as any
    development of the land by the railroad.

    “My opinion is the situation at hand calls for more creative thinking to conceive of what might be possible on
    this land,” Durning said. “A negotiated solution that preserves water quality, and the aquifer, and secures
    access to future water supply while providing some accommodation to expand rail service should be
    achievable on a parcel of this size.”

    Durning went on to say that it would be imprudent for selectmen to eschew negotiations entirely, and noted
    that federal law tends to favor railroads over local laws.

    “Given the cost and the stakes in a winner-take-all litigation, it would be imprudent not to explore the
    possibility of a mutually agreeable negotiated solution,” he said.

    The process has birthed local disagreements and distrust of local government, with selectmen sometimes
    visibly emotional in the face of resident comments.

    “Two weeks ago, I walked into my church lobby … and I bumped into someone who I’ve had a lot of respect
    for and I’ve known for a number of years in this town …. and he taps me on the shoulder, not knowing that
    my daughter’s with me, and asks me how it feels to be the most hated man in Hopedale,” Selectman Brian
    Keyes said this week. “I had to spend the next 45 minutes of my time explaining to my 7-year-old daughter
    why I’m the most hated person in this town.”

    Durning took some time during a selectmen’s meeting this week to quash conspiracy theories and assure
    residents that the legal process is proceeding as it should. He asserted several times during his speech and
    after follow-up questions that town leadership is not hiding an agenda, working against town interests or
    doing anything “nefarious.”

    “The Board of Selectmen cannot and should not respond to every email, social media post or tweet about
    this matter,” Durning said. “Town government simply does not move at the speed of Facebook.”

    Executive session discussions — meaning discussions by public officials that are not open to the public —
    for strategizing litigation are allowed under state law.

    “This is not unusual or untoward. It does not signal some alternative agenda,” Durning said. “There may be
    times when discussing litigation-related issues would compromise our own arguments or positions by feeding
    our strategies directly to our adversaries in litigation.”

    Selectman Louis Arcudi III said the “banter” has caused him to seek counsel from his workplace’s legal team,
    and he is awaiting their ruling.

    “I’m not actually sure that I will be able to continue to participate in this role because of this level of banter
    back and forth,” he said. “This has gotten to the point that there may only be one board member from this
    point on.”

    The usually three-member board is already down to two, after one member moved away from town and
    resigned amicably over the summer.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.

    Grafton and Upton Railroad says it bought a parcel of woodland in Hopedale. The town says
    it has until Nov. 7 to decide buy land.

    By Alison Bosma
    abosma@wickedlocal.com
    @AlisonBosma
    Posted Oct 21, 2020 at 3:08 PM Updated Oct 21, 2020 at 4:22 PM

    TOPLINE: The Grafton and Upton Railroad has produced a deed showing it now owns a stretch of woodland in
    Hopedale that has stirred much controversy.

    A LITTLE BACKGROUND: The railroad has been trying to acquire more than 100 acres off Hopedale’s West
    Street for more than a year. The company tried to strike a deal with the landowner, One Hundred Forty Realty
    Trust, administered by former trustees Charles Morneau and Gregg Nagle, then attempted to take the land by
    eminent domain, meaning the railroad would pay the trust, but not require its permission.

    In July, the railroad and the trust decided on a $1.2 million sale price for 155 acres. That triggered the town’s
    right of first refusal, meaning it had 120 days, expiring Nov. 7, to buy 130 acres of that land instead of the
    railroad.

    The railroad offered what it characterized as a public private partnership, in which the town would give up its
    right to first refusal, and the railroad would steer clear of potential well sites. Broad talk of land swaps benefiting
    the town’s 280-acre Parklands, as well as railroad-developed walking trails were offered, but not detailed.

    Last Thursday, the town’s attorney in this case, Peter Durning, received a deed recorded the day before,
    naming the railroad the property’s new owner. That came with Morneau’s and Nagle’s resignation from the trust.
    The town went public with that information during a Tuesday night Board of Selectmen’s meeting, which officials
    said was the soonest they could hold a meeting without violating Open Meeting Law.

    WHY DOES IT MATTER? The land could hold future drinking water sources, according to an environmental
    consulting group hired by the town to investigate the property, Environmental Partners.

    More importantly, consultants said, town control over the land would go a long way toward protecting current
    drinking water sources, which are nearby.

    The railroad said it needs some of the land as its business expands, and has pointed to a state study that
    promotes train transport as more environmentally-friendly than other types of transport, like trucking.

    WHAT DOES THE TOWN SAY? Durning says the change of ownership does not negate the town’s right to buy
    the land.

    He says the town has until at least Nov. 7 to make a decision. A case can be made, he said, that the town has
    until 120 days after the statewide COVID-19 emergency orders have been lifted. He advised selectmen to make
    their decision by Nov. 7 to avoid having to make that legal argument.

    WHAT DOES THE RAILROAD SAY? Railroad President Michael Milanoski released a letter saying company
    officials feel “great disappointment” that the proposed public private partnership did not come to fruition. The
    letter thanked some town officials for their work on the proposal, but slammed the chairman of Hopedale’s Water
    and Sewer Commission, claiming he made “false slanderous public statements” when he spoke out against the
    railroad owning the property.

    SO, WHAT NOW? The town’s special Town Meeting is Saturday. Thanks to a citizen’s petition from a large
    contingent of residents, any registered voter who attends that meeting will have a chance to weigh in on whether
    the town buys the West Street land.

    Durning said he’s not sure that vote will be binding, but selectmen have held off making their decision until after
    the meeting.

    The cost of the property is estimated at $1.2 million, with officials hinting at additional expenses from possible
    railroad lawsuits.

    Residents advocating for buying the land say this is different from the town’s typical finances, characterizing it as
    a one-time purchase. They also say they’ve secured $750,000 from a local charitable organization, Hopedale
    Foundation, toward the purchase price, and think they might also be able to win state grants.

    The group also says it doesn’t want to make a decision based on threats, and believe any legal issues fall in its
    favor.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.

    Hopedale to enter into talks with railroad over disputed land

    Alison Bosma
    The Milford Daily News
    December 25, 2020

    HOPEDALE — Hopedale officials will begin mediation talks next month with the local railroad, in an attempt
    to peacefully end a lawsuit over about 150 acres of disputed property off West Street.

    “From my perspective, participating in the mediation is a worthwhile endeavor,” said Peter  Durning, the
    attorney representing the town. “Of course, in a mediation typically neither party gets all of what they might
    want, but that’s not to say there aren’t potential solutions that could be achieved through that process.”

    Both the Grafton and Upton Railroad and the town have laid claim to the property. The railroad already
    operates tracks through the land, and railroad leadership has said it hopes to expand operations, in part by
    laying additional tracks alongside the existing ones.

    The town points to a recent environmental study and nearby conservation land and water sources, saying
    the property is key to maintaining safe drinking water.

    The town filed a lawsuit and preliminary injunction against the railroad in late October, and the judge in the
    case suggested a mediation screening, which occurred earlier this month.

    Durning reiterated to officials this week his opinion that the town has a strong case, but said the case is
    unique and without obvious precedent to lean on. Railroads enjoy federal protection from local and state
    laws, he noted.

    The case could also easily result in appeals, which would increase the cost to the town, he added.

    Residents have weighed in heavily on the subject over the last few months, in public meetings, petitions
    and through votes at Town Meeting, saying they want to buy and preserve the whole property.

    “We have a clear edict from residents to buy that whole parcel, and we have donors that have committed to
    paying for it and for the legal fees associated with it,” newly-elected Selectman Glenda Hazard said. “I don’t
    see how we can honestly say we can mediate, because that implies that there’s something that we can
    give.”

    Water Commissioner Ed Burt asked if Town Meeting would get a chance to sign off on the final decision,
    and another resident suggested putting him on the mediation team. Though officials didn’t shoot down the
    ideas, they didn’t commit to them either.

    “The baseline is to preserve and protect. What’s hard to understand is how you can split up that property,”
    Burt said. “Even though it is a big piece of property, it’s hard to see how you can split it and still accomplish
    the ‘preserve and protect.’”

    Durning said the mediation is non-binding, and recommended it.

    “This, folks, is the opportunity for the railroad to now put their money where their mouth is, and explain
    specifically what they would do as far as any kind of partnership with the town of Hopedale, if we were to
    ever reach one,” Selectman Brian Keyes said. “If it’s still fluff or it’s still ambiguous or it’s still undefined,
    then we simply walk away.”

    Selectmen this week ultimately voted unanimously to enter into mediation, to be presided over by a retired
    land court judge, beginning Jan. 8. Though the final roster is not yet decided, all three selectmen and Town
    Administrator Diana Schindler would likely represent the town.

    The mediation will not be held openly, but selectmen will return to a public meeting to present any solution
    or results to the public, and hear resident input before making a final decision.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.

    Hopedale, railroad end fight over West Street land

    Alison Bosma
    The Milford Daily News
    January 26, 2021

    HOPEDALE — After at least a year and a half of lawsuits, legal mediation, local and state hearings, and
    resident petitions and advocacy, the battle for a large chunk of land off West Street may be at an end.

    “This has been probably one of the longest and (most) emotional and arduous things that I’ve been
    involved in since ... getting elected into this position,” Board of Selectman Chairman Brian Keyes said.

    Selectmen on Monday voted to accept a mediation settlement with the Grafton and Upton Railroad, and
    associated companies, to split the largely undeveloped forest and wetlands and avoid further court costs
    and time. The two entities have been in court since at least October on the issue, and entered into
    mediation last month.

    “GU is focused on economic development growth in an environmentally sensitive manner to meet the
    growing rail freight needs of the Commonwealth,” Grafton and Upton Railroad President Michael Milanoski
    wrote in an email, adding that the railroad is pleased. “GU has been a long standing partner to the town of
    Hopedale, this railroad has operated in the town since 1890. We look forward to many more years of
    partnership with the town.”

    The legally contested area covered about 130 acres, though residents eyed 155 acres or more for
    conservation efforts.

    Railroad leadership said it planned to use the area, through which its tracks already run, to expand their
    business. The town said it needed the land to protect its water supply.

    “I feel like this is a very sad occasion for the town,” said Rob Fahey, who, while not a resident, spoke
    Monday on behalf of family members who are. “I do believe that the Parklands experience will be degraded.
    I think future generations are going to look back on this and look at it unfavorably.”

    According to the agreement, Hopedale will get about 85 acres in the area, as well as a commitment from
    the railroad that it won’t develop another, small section for five years.

    The land the town is getting will expand the Parklands by about 20 acres, and encompasses the Mill River
    corridor. That corridor is connected to the town’s drinking water, according to a recent study, and may
    contain needed future well sites.

    The town’s lawyer for the case said he was not sure the town would win its court case against the railroad,
    and the town would therefore lose all the land.

    “I’m not going to attempt to sugarcoat it — this was a really difficult process for me and I lost a lot of sleep
    over it,” Selectman Glenda Hazard said. “Whether we accept this agreement or not, I’m always going to feel
    that the railroad has usurped the town’s rights under Chapter 61, and that a fundamental wrong has taken
    place here.”

    The 85 acres also includes land not part of the contested 130 acres. The town needs railroad-owned land
    outside that area to explore and develop wells, officials said, and would therefore have needed railroad
    cooperation even if it had won a legal battle.

    The agreement is better than the original pitch offered by the railroad last year, officials said, which would
    have required the town to swap some of its own Parklands for the West Street land, and had more limited
    water protections than the new plan.

    The railroad will get the rest of the land under the new agreement, as well as some easements, as well as
    permission to replicate wetlands on town land should wetlands on its own land be “offset” by development.

    Residents on Monday complained there wasn’t enough detail and that they wanted more time to go through
    the plans and understand them before a vote.

    “The devil still is in the details and there was an awful lot there, and I think there’s an awful lot we still need
    to shake out,” Water Commission Chairman Ed Burt said.

    Residents first saw the plan in about a 90-minute presentation Monday night on public television and the
    livestreamed meeting, then had about another 90 minutes to ask questions and comment before selectmen
    approved it.

    “I also think that residents and the other town boards thought that they would have more than an hour or
    so to review a proposal of this magnitude … before the selectmen voted on it,” Hazard said. “I feel that if
    not legally, we are at least ethically compelled to let voters decide if this is an acceptable compromise for
    the town.”

    Keyes also pointed out that the deal will secure the town needed tax revenue.

    “We clamor …. how we desperately need more commercial revenue,” he said. “We have a very large
    commercial partner sitting in the center of our town that wants to be a partner with us.”

    He added that it was “insulting” that some residents said selectmen only cared about the money. Selectmen
    also pushed back against other negative comments Monday.

    “For someone to say that there’s a level of lack of trust, I don’t know how much more I could do,” Selectman
    Louis Arcudi III said, rifling through heavy files of paperwork on camera Monday, naming the category of
    each and how it related to the land before letting it fall with a thump onto a pile of its brethren.

    “The risk here is bigger than the reward,” he said, of continuing to fight for the acreage in court. “For
    someone to say that more time will give more trust to the town of Hopedale, I’m not sure I appreciate that
    comment.”

    The final vote was two in favor of the agreement, Keyes and Arcudi, with Hazard voting against it.












    HOPEDALE — A handful of residents is threatening to sue the town over its recent agreement with the local
    railroad, calling the agreement “illegal and invalid.”

    “That strikes us as a very bad deal,” said David Lurie, of Boston-based Lurie Friedman, LLP, who is
    representing 10 residents. “The town has the right to continue to litigate and to win.”

    The agreement comes after months of legal action, a town-wide vote and ultimately mediation between
    Hopedale officials and the Grafton and Upton Railroad over more than 100 acres of land off West Street.

    The railroad wants the land, through which its tracks run, to expand its business; while the town wants the
    land to protect its drinking water. Both sides agreed to mediation over fighting it out in court, with town
    officials pointing to strong legal protections for railroads.

    “We also have the unfortunate possibility of losing it all, and walking away with nothing,” Selectmen
    Chairman Brian Keyes said, “which has been extensively discussed in land court, as well as within the two
    mediation cycles.”

    The town and railroad compromised to split the land, with the town getting roughly 85 acres, including a 20-
    acre expansion of its Parklands. The railroad also promised some environmental protections, as well as
    opening the door to cost-sharing opportunities in land-surveying and when looking for and developing new
    water sources.

    “Part of the reason motivating the Board of Selectmen to seek a negotiated solution,” the town’s attorney in
    this case, Peter Durning, said, “was to secure better environmental protections for the town than the town
    would have had if Grafton and Upton Railroad had just obtained the land outright.”

    Keyes and Selectman Louis Arcudi III approved the agreement, while the third selectman, Glenda Hazard,
    voted in opposition. Residents and some local officials, including Hazard and the chairman of the Water and
    Sewer Commission, have pointed to the complexity of the agreement, and the fact that it was not widely
    available for public scrutiny before selectmen approval.

    “I wish that we could take a little extra time to let the town boards and residents take in the vast amount of
    detail that is involved in this agreement before it’s completely final,” Hazard said.

    Several people, including Hazard, Lurie and the water and sewer commissioners and Conservation
    Commission asked selectmen to delay finalizing the deal this week. The commissions sent selectmen cease-
    and-desist letters, saying they are overstepping their powers, which the letters say belong in the hands of
    the commissioners.

    “I want to clarify that the commissioners' authority is not as vast as they’ve asserted in that letter,” Durning
    said Monday.

    Selectmen approved the deal with the railroad at the end of January, and though they still needed to sign
    the final term sheet this week, Durning said the town was already bound by the agreement.

    “It’s extremely unfortunate that Selectmen Keyes and Arcudi have thumbed their nose at the 400 residents
    who voted unanimously at Town Meeting to acquire 130 acres of forestland for which the Town holds a clear
    right of first refusal,” Lurie wrote in an email to the Daily News, referring to a nearly unanimous October
    Town Meeting vote.

    Lurie thinks the new terms should have to go before Town Meeting again, and resident speakers on
    Monday night told selectmen they’d like at least a few more days to look over the agreement and
    understand it.

    “There’s such a level of detail here that not everybody’s in sync yet, because we haven’t had these
    conversations,” said Water and Sewer Commission Chairman Ed Burt. “I think we’re on the same page. We’
    re talking a lot about the same things but we just haven’t had enough time to drive all those complex details
    together.”

    Officials revealed Monday that Hopedale will not own the donated 20 acres of land near the Parklands until
    a Town Meeting accepts them. Not accepting the land would not change the agreement, Durning said.

    It’s not yet clear whether the 10 Hopedale residents will go forward with their lawsuit.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.











    HOPEDALE — Twelve residents are suing the town after it settled for less land — and overpaid for it — in
    what they said is an illegal agreement with a local railroad over 155 acres.

    The group of Hopedale residents filed the case Wednesday in Worcester Superior Court against the
    Hopedale Board of Selectmen and Grafton & Upton Railroad following months of urging the town to fight
    the railroad's proposal to build on 155 acres of disputed land off West Street.

    “The Board of Selectmen gave away parkland that properly belongs to the Town, and got into bed with the
    Railroad once again," said David Lurie, of Boston-based Lurie Friedman, LLP, in a statement on behalf of
    the residents in the suit. "The Town voted unanimously to preserve the forest as parkland, and the Board
    had no business striking a deal behind closed doors for anything less than that.”

    New terms should go before Town Meeting again and town officials should revisit the agreement before
    going forward, he said.

    According to the verified complaint filed by residents, the board failed to protect forest land by illegally
    agreeing to release and waive its rights of first refusal, and is allowing the railroad to orchestrate an
    "unlawful series of maneuvers" to extinguish the town’s rights and control the property.

    “The board’s abuse of authority, in defiance of the legislative intent, authorization and appropriation of
    Town Meeting, must be enjoined and restrained,” state the resident plaintiffs in support of a motion for a
    preliminary injunction.

    At 364 West St. sits about 155 acres of undeveloped property, sought by both the town and railroad. One
    hundred and thirty of those acres are classified as forest land, states the complaint, with the remaining 25
    acres being wetlands.

    The property abuts the 279-acre Hopedale Parklands, owned by the town and intended to be preserved as
    conservation, recreation and a possible location for municipal water supply. However, the railroad intends
    to cut through the disputed property and construct an industrial railroad on the property to expand its
    footprint.  

    The town filed a lawsuit and preliminary injunction against the railroad in late October but later agreed to
    mediation, resulting in an agreement to split the disputed land. The town agreed to getting about 85 acres,
    plus a 20-acre expansion of its Parklands, and the railroad vowed to provide environmental protections
    and possible cost-sharing opportunities when it comes to land-surveying and pinpointing new water
    sources.

    That didn’t sit well with residents and some local officials who have long been vocally opposed to the
    railroad's expansion. On Feb. 5, the town Board of Water and Sewer Commissioners sent a cease-and-
    desist letter to the Board of Selectmen to stop it from further negotiating with the railroad out of respect for
    town water rights.

    Two days later, the citizen plaintiffs expressed their objections to the term sheet, stating it was illegal
    because the railroad is not the property’s rightful owner and violates the town’s right of first refusal.

    Despite the vocal opposition — and without Town Meeting approval — the board approved a settlement
    agreement with the railroad, with two of the three selectmen — Chairman Brian Keyes and Louis Arcudi III
    — voting for it, and Glenda Hazard voting against it.  

    In the settlement, the board agreed the town would pay $587,500 to the railroad in exchange for about 40
    acres of the 130.18 acres of forest. The Town Meeting vote, however, approved purchasing the entire
    130.18 acres for $1,175,000.

    According to the agreement, that means the town agreed to pay half of what it would have paid to receive
    the entire plot of land, but will receive less than one-third of it.

    On Feb. 24, the Hopedale Foundation backtracked on its offer to assist in funding the purchase because
    the board had vastly changed the terms of the agreement, according to the complaint filed by Hopedale
    residents on Wednesday.

    A hearing on the motion filed by Hopedale residents is scheduled to be heard Monday at Worcester
    Superior Court.

    Lauren Young writes about politics, social issues and covers the towns of Bellingham, Franklin and
    Medway. Reach her at 774-804-1499 or lyoung@wickedlocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurenwhy__.


    HOPEDALE – A resident-driven challenge to a land deal between Hopedale and the local railroad was dealt
    a hard blow this week.

    In late January, Hopedale selectmen and the Grafton and Upton Railroad signed an agreement, after
    months of legal battles and mediation, that split contested property off 364 West St. between the two. The
    railroad wants the 155-acre property, largely woodland through which its tracks run, to expand its business,
    while the town says it is important to protecting drinking water.

    More:Hopedale, railroad end fight over West Street land

    A small group of Hopedale residents then filed a lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court against the board that
    included a request for an injunction, which would have put a stop to the deal while the residents’ court case
    continued.

    Thursday, a Worcester Superior Court judge denied the injunction.

    “We are disappointed by the decision and believe that it is incorrect,” residents’ lawyer David Lurie, of
    Boston-based Lurie Friedman LLP, wrote in an email to the Daily News.

    Judge Shannon Frison wrote that the residents’ “failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits” in her
    denial, quoting a previous legal case. In that case, it was ruled that a town could authorize selectmen to do
    something similar, but could not command them to do it.

    “In accordance with precedent, the settlement agreement in this matter cannot be vacated or nullified,
    despite the town's disagreement with it,” Frison wrote.

    Lurie said his clients are evaluating their next steps, but “remain committed” to the protection of Hopedale’s
    parkland.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.

    HOPEDALE — A week after a Superior Court judge declined to intervene in a land deal between the town
    and a local railroad, the group of residents suing the town has appealed the decision.
    Hopedale residents are appealing a judge's decision to not intervene in a land deal between the town and a
    local railroad.

    “We expect that the appeal will be successful and the Board will be enjoined from performing its illegal deal
    with the Railroad,” residents’ lawyer David Lurie, of Boston-based Lurie Friedman LLC, wrote in an email to
    the Daily News.

    Hopedale officials and representatives from the Grafton and Upton Railroad agreed to end a months-long
    fight over disputed forestland off West Street at the end of January.

    The agreement splits the land, which the railroad said it needs to expand, and the town said it needs for
    drinking water protections.

    A group of residents subsequently filed a lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court, saying such a decision
    deserves Town Meeting approval, and that it flies in the face of an October Town Meeting vote requesting
    selectmen take complete control over about 130 acres of the roughly 155-acre total.

    “The Board was supposed to acquire 130 acres of forest for conservation land, not allow the Railroad to
    develop most of it,” Lurie wrote.

    The resident lawsuit included an injunction, meant to stop the deal by preventing selectmen from paying the
    railroad the agreed $587,500. Last week, a judge denied the injunction, saying residents failed to prove
    their case was likely to succeed.

    The memorandum associated with the appeal argues that the case cited by the judge in denying the
    injunction is not relevant to the Hopedale case.

    The appeal has not yet appeared on the case’s online docket, and it’s not clear when the next step will occur.

    HOPEDALE — A group of Hopedale residents succeeded this week in putting the brakes on a land deal
    between the town and local railroad, over controversial land off West Street.

    The state Appeals Court has granted an injunction and will look into residents' claims that a Worcester
    Superior Court judge erred in denying an earlier request for the injunction.

    “We remain confident … the Court will find that the Settlement is inconsistent with and not authorized by
    the October 24, 2020 Hopedale Town Meeting,” the group’s attorney, David Lurie of Boston-based Lurie
    Friedman LLC, wrote in an email to the Daily News.

    Hopedale selectmen and the Grafton and Upton Railroad came to a settlement agreement in January to
    end a months-long fight over more than 100 acres of forestland off West Street. The town wants the land
    to protect its drinking water, while the railroad, whose tracks already run through the property, wants it to
    expand.

    The agreement splits the land between the two entities, and also allows for some cost-sharing when
    searching for and developing drinking water sources.

    Eleven taxpayers subsequently sued the town over the deal in Worcester Superior Court, and asked  
    judge to delay the deal while the case was underway. The group argues that the selectmen’s deal violated
    a vote made at Town Meeting, directing selectmen to acquire a specific 130 acres of the land’s roughly
    155-acre total.

    The deal gives the town about 85 acres, and it only includes about 40 acres of the Town Meeting-intended
    130 acres, the lawsuit says.

    Earlier this month, a judge denied the residents’ request for an injunction, which would have delayed the
    deal. The case “failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits,” Judge Shannon Frison wrote.

    Residents appealed, with Lurie saying the case the judge used in the denial was not relevant, and that the
    judge made a “clear error of law" and the injunction was granted Thursday, while the court looks into the
    allegations.

    The court said it must decide whether Frison “erred or abused her discretion,” when denying the injunction.

    “Further, it is ordered that Defendant Hopedale Board of Selectmen is enjoined from issuing any bonds,
    making any expenditures, paying any costs, including without limitation, for land or hydrogeological
    surveying, or transferring any property interests pursuant to the settlement agreement (with the railroad),”
    the ruling reads.

    Selectmen and the Grafton and Upton Railroad have until April 1 to file a response.

    Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at
    @AlisonBosma.