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As he drives along South Main Street, Rob Taylor often finds himself turning to catch a glimpse of the Westboro Rail Yard and its old roundhouse.
The brick structure, built in 1890, was once used to service locomotives along the Boston and Maine Railroad’s busy route from Concord to White River Junction.
That storied history is hard to see now.
“It’s this complete eyesore, blight, whatever you want to call it,” said Taylor, the executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce. “It looks like a set for a Stephen Spielberg World War II movie. It’s this burned-out wreck of a building.”
After years of stalled talks to rehabilitate the rail yard and continued deterioration of its historic buildings, which include a sand house and old crew house for railroad workers, Taylor is hoping a fresh start can make progress at the site. However, cleaning up the property likely will be a challenge.
Although the state, which owns the yard, and city both say it’s in need of repairs, they’ve been unable to agree on a response. And with millions of dollars needed for a full-scale redevelopment, it’s unlikely either can fund a cleanup effort alone.
“Why do the residents of Lebanon have to look at this site every day when something can and should be done for the betterment of the entire area and the region?” Taylor asked in an April letter to Gov. Chris Sununu.
The letter is what Taylor described as a “shot across the bow” of state officials, written in the hopes that Sununu, who took office in January, would visit and change course on the property. Instead, he received a letter back from state officials explaining the hurdles that stand in the way.
The state Department of Transportation purchased the yard in 1998 after it was abandoned in the 1970s during the decline of the railroad. The state has since leased the rails to the Claremont Concord Railroad, which was purchased by Connecticut-based Genesse & Wyoming in 2015.
That lease is set to expire in 2020, according to DOT spokesman Bill Boynton, and the current agreement allows the two parties to negotiate another 10-year lease before that date.
Part of the property also is used by Rymes Propane & Oil for propane storage, and any agreement to create a park or the purchase of historic buildings would have to take current uses into account, according to Boynton.
The state also lacks the money to remove or rehabilitate the buildings on its own, DOT senior hearings examiner Kathleen Mulcahey-Hampson wrote to Taylor.
“Removal of unsightly buildings is not a safety issue and is a lower priority,” she wrote. “The situation with the railroad yard is similar to the closed rest areas. While the closed rest areas are not aesthetically pleasing, they do no present a safety hazard to the traveling public.”
A 2000 study commissioned by the department estimated it could cost $430,000 to stabilize the roundhouse building. Reversing damage to other buildings on the property and creating a system of trails could cost an additional $974,050, the city found in a 2004 study.
The state’s response is familiar to Lebanon officials, who say they’ve experienced difficulty while pursuing different options for the site.
In 2000, the Rotary Club of Lebanon began talks to create a park at the Westboro yard as part of what it called the “string of pearls,” a group of green spaces between Mascoma Lake and the Connecticut River.
The city ultimately took interest and hired a group of architects and engineers to study the possibility of building a park on the property. They issued a report in 2004 that detailed a proposed network of trails, parking lot and funding options to stabilize the historic structures.
But those proposals never came to fruition. The state did transfer ownership of an almost 1-acre parcel near Bridge Street for use as a small park, but the larger trail system and plans to purchase a larger tract of land were abandoned.
“This has been a very long haul and the state has been, I would have to say, less than forthcoming in working with the city to undertake some sort of revitalization of the Westboro yard,” said Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara, a West Lebanon native and director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
He said the state’s leasing of the property to Rymes was “discouraging” because a potential blast zone now makes federal grants more difficult to obtain.
By leaving the yard in decay, the state also has contributed to challenging development conditions in the area, McNamara said.
“I think redevelopment in West Lebanon would proceed in a much better fashion if something were done about the Westboro yard,” he said, adding he’s “cautiously optimistic” relations between the state and city will improve.
John Rymes, vice president of Rymes Propane & Oil, disagrees.
He lauded the rail line and his company’s fuel depot as an economic benefit.
“As trucking restrictions are imposed, the railroad has the capability to come back and save us a lot of money for a lot of customers,” Rymes said. “Having the (active rail) in West Lebanon could be one of the best economic benefits the town has in the future.”
Lebanon Mayor Sue Prentiss also worried that without state cooperation, Taylor’s hopes of rehabilitating the site cannot get off the ground.
“There’s nothing else you can do because the state has a stronghold on this property,” she said, adding the city would be open to a partnership to discuss the yard.
“I’d love to see something happen down there,” Prentiss said. “The truth is, with their ownership and this active railroad, it’s really hard to do any other kinds of things we’d like to do there.”
Even with those challenges, cleaning up the yard is a worthy endeavor, said Curt Jacques, who owns West Lebanon Feed and Supply, which sits adjacent to the rail yard.
“It’s an eyesore. It’s something that Lebanon needs to address, not just with the City Council but also with our legislators,” added Jacques, who also is the Chamber of Commerce’s chairman.
If he were given a blank check, he would place the historic Flying Yankee steamliner in a renovated roundhouse, invite an anchor restaurant into the property’s old bunkhouse and build a riverfront boardwalk along the water.
Advocating for the rail yard will be a lot of work, Jacques admitted, but he doesn’t want to “just sit back and wait.”
Tim Camerato can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.
This article first appeared on www.vnews.com
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