Police Target Trespassers; Hartford Residents Look for a Way Around Railroad Properties
Bonnie Bishop of Buswick, Maine, crosses railroad tracks on Joe Reed Drive in White River Junction, Vt., on May 25, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
The private railroad crossing at Joe Reed Drive in White River Junction, Vt., warns pedestrians of danger on May 25, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hartford selectman Simon Dennis, who was cited for trespassing in the railyard near his home, stands on a footpath on his property near the Connecticut River in White River Junction, Vt., on May 25, 2014. Dennis wants to work with officials to extend the pathway, diverting pedestrians from the railyard and connecting the neighborhood with downtown White River Junction. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — Matt Bucy isn’t your typical lawbreaker.
And he wasn’t trying to draw police attention about a year ago when he stepped onto the railroad bed that abuts the Tip Top building to photograph the Bridge Street underpass before it was replaced.
The 50-year-old developer, who co-owns the Tip Top, had hoped to find a better vantage point to view the trestle. What he got instead was a warning from Hartford police.
The meassage, according to Bucy: He was trespassing on private property. Another offense could earn him a citation to appear in court.
Although police report no record of an encounter with Bucy, who was elected to the Selectboard this spring, there are plenty of records of those who have been stopped by police as they walked on railroad property, jointly occupied by Vermont Rail System and New England Central Railroad, in downtown White River Junction.
More than 20 people have been warned or cited for trespassing in the past six months, including Simon Dennis, another member of the Selectboard, and Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin.
Some of the people who were stopped have raised questions about the police department’s efforts: Why is the police department expending time and energy on behalf of private companies? Is the railroad property adequately marked so people are aware of the property boundaries? And can alternative routes be constructed so people trying to find a more direct route to work or town can do so without breaking the law?
“Why are Hartford police officers sitting there threatening innocent walkers who have been doing this for years?” said Baldwin, who had an encounter with police earlier this month.
The police department’s vigilance has resulted in 18 people being warned for trespassing on the tracks, and three have been cited in the past six months, Deputy Chief Brad Vail said last week. Police policy is to issue a warning the first time, put the person’s name on a list, then issue a citation for a second incidence of trespassing.
Records show the department, which historically has patrolled railroad property, has increased its watch since 2010.
“It could be that we are taking a more active stance than in prior years,” Vail said. “I guess you could say we probably are.”
Why is the department policing private property?
Because the rail system “is in our town,” the police department must provide a service, much like it would to other businesses, Vail said.
The department is doing “due diligence” by looking after the tracks, Vail said.
“If you were out on the area near a railroad bridge and if a train were to come or something were to happen, say you twisted your foot and fell and couldn’t move, you could turn into a target,” Vail said, noting the department “keep(s) an eye on the tracks” as part of patrolling the entire town.
Vermont Agency of Transportation Rail Program Director Dan Delabruere said the state, which leases the land to the Vermont Rail System, doesn’t have a police force specific to rail operations.
“The local authorities, they are the ones who are supposed to enforce the trespass laws,” Delabruere said.
Vermont Rail System Operations Manager Brion Muzzy said the Burlington-based parent company, which operates 350 miles of tracks and services freight and passengers on a handful of lines, also doesn’t have its own police force, adding “I am not really at liberty to talk about” what security measures are in place on rail property.
“If I told you what we did for security, we wouldn’t be secure,” Muzzy said. He said the Hartford Police Department is “sometimes” the main entity the rail system relies on to patrol the property, then abruptly ended a phone interview.
Attempts to reach New England Central Railroad officials were unsuccessful.
Baldwin, who co-founded the White River Junction-based Chelsea Green publishing company in 1984, said she has walked through the rail yard near the downtown station “a couple times a week” for roughly two years, primarily because she didn’t know that the property was off limits.
She was stopped for the first time this month and had her personal information jotted down by police.
She said she has walked within “five or six feet” of employees working in the rail yard.
“No one has ever said a word to me. I have never seen a policeman there before this,” she said. “I have a dog, so I bring him to the office, and we walk through there often.”
If rail authorities don’t want people crossing the yard, Baldwin said, “they need to put up signs and fences.”
There are at least a few signs to deter pedestrians and drivers from accessing rail property in the area.
Two are painted onto the front of the iron railroad bridge near the courthouse in faint letters, and the other is a no unauthorized vehicles sign near the tracks and a gate off Latham Works Lane.
Signs are not visible when entering the rail yard behind the station, a common entry point, and Vail said that is OK because of the existing agreement with the rail system.
Vail said the Hartford police policy of an initial warning, with an official citation only after a second case of trespassing, serves as proper notice.
“That is why they get one warning, so they have that notice,” Vail said.
When safety is a concern, the state installs signs, Delabruere said.
“The state has put up signs in other locations around the state where it is a known problem area,” he said, noting a sign can’t be placed “everywhere on the entire property.”
Vail said he is not aware of any residents being injured on rail property in the past decade.
Center for Cartoon Studies graduate Carl Antonowicz said he had been warned “two or three” times by Hartford police for walking in the rail yard, but never received a citation.
“Had there been no trespassing signs, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said.
At least one prominent Hartford resident regrets that he ignored initial warnings from police about trespassing. Hartford police encountered Selectman Simon Dennis for a second time as he passed through the downtown rail yard on a walk to Latham Works Lane in December.
That run-in landed him with a citation to appear in court.
“It was a mistake on my part,” said Dennis, who lives and works on Latham Works Lane. “It is not something that I plan on doing again.”
His case went to court diversion, as did that of Cartoon School employee Luke Howard, who lives in the same neighborhood and was issued a citation in March for trespassing on the same stretch of rail property.
He previously used the rail yard as a shortcut, noting it can cut several minutes off the walk to downtown.
More so, crossing the railroad bridge near Latham Works Lane that spans the Connecticut River can cut as much as 40 minutes off a trip to New Hampshire, Howard said.
As a community service component of their diversions, Dennis and Howard are devising a plan for a pathway or “river walk” — something the town has discussed previously.
Dennis and Howard, working with other residents, are pursuing a path that would begin at George Ratcliffe Park off Latham Works Lane and run along the Connecticut and White rivers toward the Windsor District Courthouse, thus avoiding the downtown rail yard.
But a couple of factors still need to be worked out before the project, which could cost $100,000 to $300,000, comes to fruition, Dennis said.
He noted obtaining a property easement and navigating around or under the railroad bridges are among the challenges.
“It is an investment that I think the town should go for,” Dennis said. “It would represent a huge asset, create a nature walk and link the downtown with the river.”
Although Howard said he was excited about the prospects of having a legal route to downtown, he said this particular path might still be considered out of the way.
“There is still a strong need for a legal footpath for people to cross through more quickly,” Howard said, noting the river route might not “solve the problem” of trespassing on rail property.
Bucy, who likened the situation to “the Berlin Wall,” said he backs the idea for an alternative route to downtown.
“White River Junction has an enormous wall that runs through the middle of town,” Bucy said referencing the rail property. “You aren’t supposed to cross it, but you are constantly tempted to.”
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.