GERMANTOWN—Amtrak has proposed a “fencing project” along its Right of Way at the Hudson River, from Rhinebeck to Stuyvesant. The railroad cites safety concerns as the reason for the fence, but Germantown and possibly other communities that border the river are concerned that the plan will block access for recreation, fishing and fire protection and rescue.
The progress of the fence plan involves the Dutchess County communities of Rhinebeck and Tivoli, which already have Local Waterfront Revitalization Programs (LWRPs) in place, so the proposal has to go through a federal consistency review with the state Coastal Management Program and the LWRPs.
It was Tivoli officials who received the Amtrak proposal and shared it with the Germantown Local Waterfront Study Committee.
Germantown’s waterfront committee has been at work on an LWRP and was scheduled to update the Town Board on its progress at the March 13 meeting. Supervisor Robert Beaury said Monday that he had also asked the committee to make a statement on the Amtrak proposal.
In Germantown, Amtrak wants to close a four-mile stretch of the right of way between Lasher Park at the north and Cheviot Park at the south by putting up a gate at either end, explained Kaare Christian, a waterfront committee member who, since 1980, has lived near the Amtrak grade crossing at Lasher Park.
This park-like space, 50 to 100 feet wide, connecting the two parks, has historically been used by fishers, walkers, cyclists, cross-country skiers and families that simply want an outing, he said. “It’s a real gem of an area, not crowded, but it is used.”
When the passenger railroad came in, in the 19th century, Mr. Christian said, “it unwittingly created a conservation area on the east side of the river. Habitation was pushed back, and small animals live there. Eagles nest in Stockport. This is an important area, and it’s been kept open for a long time.”
Periodically, the railroads proposed limiting public access. In 2001, the freight railroad company CSX, which still owns the right of way maintained by Amtrak, tried to close the Germantown crossing gates. The town pushed back and after then-Governor Pataki joined the fray, the idea was dropped. Volunteer firefighters remember a similar effort that was quashed in 1991.
The reason given is always safety; most recently, “to keep pedestrians and vehicles out of harm’s way,” in the January 12, 2018 cover letter with Amtrak’s Federal Consistency Form.
In Germantown, a lack of access to the right of way is deemed unsafe by firefighters.
“It would hamper water rescue and firefighting along the tracks, and there have been fires along the tracks over the years,” said Roy Brown, a longtime firefighter with Germantown Hose Company #1 and chairman of the district’s Board of Fire Commissioners.
“That entire area [proposed for fencing off] is under the fire district’s area of responsibility,” said Jennifer Crawford, a Germantown firefighter and chairwoman of the waterfront committee. “If there’s a train crash, someone lost in the river—the fire company is the first responder.”
With access to two potential launch sites and about five miles of coastline, Hose Company #1 “has developed one of the strongest water rescue departments in the county,” Ms. Crawford wrote in an email to Supervisor Beaury, outlining the problems that firefighters find with the proposal.
“Volunteers have maintained the entire stretch of land through the annual Riversweep cleanup,” she noted. “The proposed fencing will impact what has historically been a mutually acceptable public use of the land.”
The waterfront committee has a vision for that land: formalize with CSX its public use and create an accessible river walk between Lasher and Cheviot Parks, “with a connection to the town’s central sidewalk system via a proposed pedestrian bridge near Lower Main Street,” wrote Ms. Crawford.
The town owns the land at the two parks, Lasher and Cheviot, Ms. Crawford said Monday. “Through our planning process, we learned that the town also owns, and has riparian rights to, a parcel between Cheviot and Lower Main Street that is otherwise inaccessible by land.” Riparian rights refer to access to shore, bed and water.
The Amtrak proposal allows a 15-day public comment period that began on March 14. Mr. Beaury said that at the March 13 meeting he would ask the Town Board’s permission to write to Amtrak and ask for an extension of the comment period. “This seems to be moving very fast,” he said.
In fact, Amtrak’s initial request to New York State is dated in the first half of January. The public seems to have learned of it two months later, however, on the verge of the public comment period.
At this writing, comments are due by 4:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29, 2018. Comments should be addressed to the NYS Department of State, Office of Planning, Development & Community Infrastructure, One Commerce Plaza, 99 Washington Avenue, Albany, New York 12231. Telephone 518 474-6000; fax 518 473-2464; email: email@example.com.
Those who comment by email are asked to copy the waterfront committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s hard to see a solution because I’m not sure what the problem is,” said Mr. Christian. “They mention safety in their documents, but we’ve had public access for years.”
For Mr. Christian, “the process is part of the problem. They’re just coming in, saying, ‘This is what we’re doing.’
“I’m an engineer,” he added. “If you ask me, Amtrak needs to make reliable, safe grade crossings. No one’s been hurt along the right of way, but I call about three times a year when the gate is failing at Lasher Park. I live right next to it; you can see it malfunction, and there’s an 800 number to call.”