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

    By Alison Bosma
    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
    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.