Lebanon Buys House for Access to Westboro Rail Yard Property

  • An undated color postcard depicts the Boston and Maine roundhouse and railroad yard in West Lebanon, N.H. courtesy photograph

  • The City of Lebanon has purchased a house on Main Street in West Lebanon, N.H., to better access the Wetboro railyard property. The city has filed paperwork that could ultimately lead to the razing of historic buildings in the yard. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2018 11:46:48 PM
Modified: 8/24/2018 9:55:21 AM

West Lebanon — City officials say efforts are underway to secure portions of the historic Westboro Rail Yard for future use, but they warn that progress is slow moving.

“We don’t want to raise expectations because this has been going on for a very long time,” City Manager Shaun Mulholland said in an interview on Thursday. “We’re not going to see the Westboro Yard probably turn into our hands in 2019.”

Early this month, the city submitted an application requesting it purchase or lease portions of the 22-acre property in downtown West Lebanon from the state Department of Transportation, which purchased the land in 1998.

It also requested asbestos testing of four historic structures in the rail yard, an initial step that will help the state determine a cost to demolish the buildings.

Both steps are part of an ongoing plan to accomplish small tasks that someday could lead to the city establishing a park on the land, which is situated along the Connecticut River across from White River Junction.

At the least, officials hope the property could be beautified and cleared of decaying buildings.

While talks to do just that date back about three decades, the city’s filings mark the most progress in years toward improvement of the rail yard, Mayor Sue Prentiss said.

“I’m very optimistic,” she said on Thursday. “This is the furthest I’ve seen a conversation get.”

Both Prentiss and Mulholland are among a group of city officials working to improve the 170-year-old rail yard, after concerns were raised last year about the safety of a Rymes Propane & Oil facility operating at the site.

During a September meeting, Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos warned that shrapnel and fire from an explosion at the property would prove “potentially fatal” for 492 people living in a 1,560-foot radius.

Rymes has since expressed a willingness to “mound” — or bury above ground — two large storage tanks that would be needed to expand its operation at the yard.

Christopoulos said on Thursday that he had a brief conversation with Rymes officials several weeks ago about permitting the new tanks, though an application hasn’t yet been filed.

While the city awaits more information from Rymes, its applications to the state are moving through a review that appears to be going well, Mulholland said. No state agencies so far have objected to Lebanon taking control of the land, which would exclude the Rymes operation, he said.

The state also knows of the city’s position that the DOT pay for necessary cleanup and demolition at the rail yard, Prentiss said.

City officials are reluctant to take liability for either effort, she said.

In some areas, it’s possible that petroleum contaminated soil 30 feet underground, according to a memo provided to city councilors last spring. The buildings themselves also are known to have asbestos, which officials believe was buried underground as well.

While the city continues to press state officials to clean up the site, it is possible that Lebanon will help chip in some funds, Prentiss said. That depends both on the DOT’s estimate for remediation work and the willingness of fellow councilors, she said.

“If we have to help with the cleanup, then that’s a commitment I think we can make,” Prentiss said.

The recent purchase of a single-family home on South Main Street also signals the city’s commitment to the rail yard, and secures Lebanon’s access to the site in perpetuity, Prentiss said.

The property, which was acquired in July, is expected to provide better access to the adjacent rail yard and help during replacement of the “dry bridge” that allows Route 12A to cross a set of railroad tracks.

Mulholland said the city bought the property for $235,000, but owning the land will save between $1.5 million and $2 million on overall construction costs.

Replacement of the bridge is scheduled to begin in 2020 at a cost of $8.1 million, of which the city will foot about $1.6 million.

“What that (property) is going to do is allow us to change the profile of the bridge, and we’ll now be able to build a road” to the rail yard, Mulholland said.

City Council member Jim Winny, who represents West Lebanon, said he’s glad to see some progress regarding the Westboro Rail Yard, but he’s not satisfied with the pace of the process.

“It’s hard to get this kind of project moving,” said Winny, who attributed that difficulty to the large number of groups with a stake in the property.

The state, railroad and Rymes all have a say in the future of the site, he said, adding antiquated railroad laws complicate matters further.

If the city is successful in pressing the state to demolish the Westboro Rail Yard’s buildings, some of Lebanon’s most historic structures will be lost.

However, assessments of those buildings have long labeled them in poor condition, and estimates to restore the structures can climb into the millions.

The 1890 roundhouse is one of the most visible landmarks associated with the decaying rail yard and can easily be seen from South Main Street.

The semi-circular shaped building once serviced locomotives, and once included a machine shop and space for freight storage, according to a 2004 report commissioned by the city to explore turning the rail yard into a public park.

In a separate 2000 report, engineers estimated a $430,000 price tag to save the building.

The nearby sand shed was built in the early 1900s to store bulk sand, which was used as traction on icy rails in the winter. The shed would dry sand and then blow it through a chute into a locomotive’s “sand chamber.”

Engineers in 2004 said the building required a new foundation, repairs to its chimney and siding, as well as a new roof to be stabilized. They estimated the work would cost more than $42,000.

And the crew house is one of the newest structures at the property, built in 1936 as a dormitory and mess hall for railroad workers. Stabilizing the building likely would cost more than $100,000, engineers predicted, and renovation to make it habitable would cost another $400,000, according to the 2004 report.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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