Railroad Property Leasing Subject of New Hampshire Bill

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2019 11:38:34 PM
Modified: 1/5/2019 11:38:35 PM

Lebanon — Lebanon lawmakers in the New Hampshire House are proposing new legislation aimed at increasing accountability and communication surrounding the state’s railroad properties, including the historic Westboro Rail Yard in West Lebanon.

The bill, House Bill 135, would require the state Department of Transportation to notify communities when it intends to lease railroad properties within their boundaries.

The measure also would require any lessees and sublessees to “comply with the same municipal regulatory and safety code requirements as private property owners.”

Rep. Richard Abel, D-Lebanon, said the bill is in response to ongoing discussions regarding cleanup and safety of the Westboro Rail Yard.

A group of Lebanon lawmakers and city councilors have been meeting with state officials for more than a year, when Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos brought forward safety concerns about the Rymes Propane & Oil facility operating inside the 170-year-old yard.

The damage from an explosion at the property could prove “potentially fatal” for 492 people living in a 1,560-foot radius, he told the City Council in September 2017.

City officials also are hoping to either purchase or lease portions of the yard, and are pushing for a cleanup effort there.

“I learned from (the talks) basically two things — that there was not always very good communication between the state Department of Transportation and an individual municipality about leases of state-owned railroad property,” said Abel, the bill’s primary sponsor. “And there didn’t appear to be any requirements that the rail bureau let a town or a city know that a lease was coming up, or that they are planning to sublease (a property).”

Local communities should also be allowed to enforce their own regulatory and safety regulations on a rail property, he said. Those could include zoning and planning regulations.

The bill has the support of Lebanon Reps. George Sykes, Sue Almy and Laurel Stavis, all Democrats. Reps. Constance Van Houten, D-Manchester, and Rebecca McBeath, D-Portsmouth, also are co-sponsors.

City Councilor Jim Winny, who represents West Lebanon, says he’s also in favor of the bill because it would provide Lebanon a greater say in what goes on inside the state-owned rail yard.

While Rymes’ current operation is likely grandfathered, any expansion could be subject to more city scrutiny, if the bill is passed, he said.

“Nobody wants a giant propane storage facility, or there’s a number of things I could think of that you wouldn’t want put right next to Main Street,” Winny said.

The legislation could also prevent other communities from the heartache that Lebanon is now going through, trying to clean up Westboro while also negotiating with the state and Rymes, he said.

It’s possible that Abel will file amendments to the bill, as he continues discussions with the state’s Bureau of Rail and Transit. He said the bill needs to both assure good communication with municipalities and protect the public against actions taken on state-leased property.

“We’ve had some productive discussions but haven’t addressed every issue,” Abel said, adding work is ongoing to draft the “best language” to go into the bill.

DOT spokesman Bill Boynton said on Wednesday that transportation officials are aware of the legislation, and confirmed the department is in talks with Abel.

“Any public comments we would have regarding the bill would be if and when we would testify at a legislative hearing on the measure,” he said.

City officials are also weighing in, with City Manager Shaun Mulholland proposing several changes to the bill’s language, including time limits for the state to notify municipalities of a lease.

He’s also provided Abel with an amendment that seeks to soften municipal power so as not to conflict with state authority.

“We’d have, I think, significant difficulty in allowing municipalities to pre-empt the state government in its own regulations,” Mulholland told the City Council on Wednesday. “I think you’re going to run into a stone wall with that. I’m trying to make it less threatening, shall we say, more pointed.”

Abel’s bill has been referred to the House Public Works and Highways Committee, which is expected to make a recommendation to the full House in March.

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

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