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The railroad company that manages about 2 miles of tracks connecting Lebanon to major rail lines in White River Junction is asking permission to continue operations there for the next decade.
The New England Central Railroad, or NECR, is seeking a 10-year lease with New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation that would allow it to continue using state-owned rails to deliver propane, bulk cement and salt into West Lebanon.
Under the proposal, NECR would continue to pay 5% of its monthly gross operating revenue to the state, which has traditionally brought in about $20,000 a year to Concord.
The lease, which must be approved by the five-member Executive Council, which meets Friday, also would maintain the railroad’s control over portions of the historic Westboro Rail Yard in West Lebanon and make it easier to sublease the land.
That means the company that last year bought Rymes Propane & Oil, which until recently operated a propane offloading facility at the tracks in the Westboro Yard, wouldn’t be required to seek a separate sublease with the state. Instead, it could negotiate directly with the railroad.
However, regulators would still have final say over any sublease of the 22-acre rail yard, Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland pointed out Tuesday morning.
Under the proposal, the NECR must provide the state with written notice of its desire to issue a sublease along with a copy of the agreement before the DOT would sign off.
It’s unclear whether or when the railroad would make use of that option, though.
Rymes was sold to Canada-based Superior Plus last year, and that company shut down offloading operations shortly thereafter to assess what improvements are needed inside the Westboro property, situated between the Connecticut River and Route 10.
Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos, who last spoke with Superior’s representatives in October, said he hasn’t heard any updates since.
Rymes’ propane operation was opposed by city officials who worried it hampered development in downtown West Lebanon and, in a worst-case scenario, could result in an explosion. Such an incident could prove “potentially fatal” for 492 people living within a 1,560-foot radius, Christopoulos told city councilors in 2017.
But it doesn’t appear the city will fight the new lease, in part because it’s gearing up for another round of negotiations regarding portions of the rail yard that aren’t marked for railroad use.
Money set aside in the state budget for demolition of the bunkhouse, roundhouse, sandhouse and chimney remain in limbo, Mulholland said, adding the removal of the dilapidated buildings is seen as a first step toward improving West Lebanon’s image.
He plans to bring several proposals to get the ball rolling before the City Council early next month.
Those include a pitch to provide the state with a no-interest loan for its share of the roughly $858,000 in demolition costs and the possibility that Lebanon could raise the funds itself.
Mulholland also told the city’s West Lebanon Revitalization Advisory Committee last week that he intends to issue a notice of violation asserting the state isn’t living up to its building enforcement code.
Lebanon ultimately hopes to create a waterfront park inside the rail yard, and the proposed railroad lease agreement appears to support that effort. A provision would allow New Hampshire to set aside land stretching from the Connecticut River to Route 12A for “non-railroad use to a third party.”
Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, agreed that demolition of the historic buildings needs to come first, saying Tuesday that he’s committed to releasing the demolition funds.
“I think it’s incumbent on the leaders of the state to come together and come up with some resolutions this year,” he said.
But Kenney sees the proposed railroad lease, which he plans to support, as a separate issue. He said the negotiations that led to it coming before the Executive Council appear to be fair and he doesn’t see any problems allowing NECR to continue operating.
“As long as the parties are agreeable and I don’t sense there’s that much from the city of Lebanon, then I’m fine with that,” he said.
This article first appeared on www.concordmonitor.com
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