Frequently Asked Questions

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General Questions

What is the Swampscott Rail Trail?

The Rail Trail will create a 90,000 square foot linear park on a former railroad bed that runs the length of Swampscott, providing access for all the town’s residents to new open space for enjoying recreation, the outdoors, and our community.

The Rail Trail will run almost two miles from Stetson Avenue to the existing Marblehead Rail Trail. The trail will pass through neighborhoods, wooded areas, past ponds and town owned conservation lands. It will have street crossings at Paradise Road, Walker Road, Humphrey Street, Bradlee Avenue, Beach Bluff Avenue and Bellevue Avenue.

The Rail Trail will also connect three of Swampscott’s five schools (Clarke, Stanley, and the Middle School), as well as the town baseball fields while passing a half-mile from the High School and Hadley School. See the Map page for more details.

Why is Swampscott creating a trail?

Swampscott residents, their representatives, and Town committees have repeatedly endorsed creating the Rail Trail to increase Swampscott’s limited open space, provide safe routes to schools and parks, allow people a place to exercise, and provide access to a range of natural habitats. You can view the Documentation page for a list of community plans supporting the creation of the Swampscott Rail Trail.

Who is working to create the Rail Trail?

Over the years, many people have worked to advance the creation of the Rail Trail. In 1999, a 501(c)(3) non-profit called SPIRIT was formed. SPIRIT raised funds to pay for surveys and appraisals necessary to advance the creation of the Rail Trail.

A second group, the Swampscott Rail Trail Implementation Committee (RTIC), was created by Town Meeting to bring the trail to reality. The committee’s members are appointed and they hold meetings and forums as needed. The meetings are usually at Town Hall. Please check the town website and/or Town Hall postings for meeting dates and times. The Rail Trail Implementation Committee meetings are public and all are welcome to attend. The RTIC is currently working with the Town Administrator, the Town’s Planning Department, the Board of Selectmen, and other Town committees to move the Swampscott Rail Trail project forward.

Who owns the land where the Rail Trail will be located?

The Rail Trail will run along the former railroad land that runs from the Swampscott Train Depot to the Marblehead line. Much of this land was sold by Boston & Maine to Massachusetts Electric in the 1960s. Mass Electric (National Grid) currently owns the fee interest to or an easement on most of the land for its electric power line corridor.

What does the railroad corridor look like now?

The existing railroad corridor is for the most part overgrown, strewn with trash, and in disrepair. The width of the rail bed ranges from 35 feet to as wide as 115 feet in sections along its almost 2 mile length. Some areas are clear and easily walkable and are already being used by walkers and kids playing and riding bikes. Other sections are almost impassible due to the overgrowth of invasive plants like Japanese knotweed and places where abutters have erected fences.

Who pays real estate taxes on the land where the Rail Trail will be located?

National Grid pays all real estate taxes for the land where the Rail Trail will be located. The establishment of the Rail Trail in this area is not anticipated to change this. No private abutter to this land pays real estate taxes on this land.

How will concerns of neighbors to the trail be ensured?

The Town is committed to ensuring the Rail Trail is a win for everyone, general community members and trail abutters alike. First and foremost, the RTIC will undertake to design and construct the trail in a manner that is most sensitive to property abutters. Second, mitigation efforts will be utilized wherever possible to minimize the impact of the trail on property abutters. Such measures may include the use of vegetative screens to provide increased privacy for abutters. All decisions regarding the design, engineering, and implementation of the trail will be made at public meetings open to all. The Town leadership and RTIC will work directly with trail abutters during the design, engineering, and implementation phases to address their concerns wherever possible.

How will the Town obtain the right to use this land for a Rail Trail?

The Rail Trail will run along the former railroad land that runs from the Swampscott Train Depot to the Marblehead line. That land was sold by Boston & Maine to Massachusetts Electric (now National Grid). Much of this land is still owned by National Grid, while some areas may be owned by abutters to the railroad land. The Town will obtain, by donation or acquisition, a recreational easement over the land where the Rail Trail will be located. Donations of the recreational easement will likely be tax deductible. For all other property owners, the Town will acquire the recreational easement via eminent domain and pay property owners for the value of the recreational easement.

Will the Town, National Grid, or abutting property owners be responsible if someone is injured on the Rail Trail?

Recreational Use Statutes and government immunity from tort claims will protect the Town from potential liability claims.

Additionally, Massachusetts law protects land owners that allow the public access to their property for recreational use.

According to the experience of other rail trails as reported by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, “adjacent landowners are not at risk as long as they abstain from ‘willful and wanton misconduct’ against trespassers such as recklessly or intentionally creating a hazard. Trail managers minimize liability exposure provided they design and manage the trail in a responsible manner and do not charge for trail access.”

How can the Rail Trail benefit Swampscott’s economy?

Communities with rail trails have seen economic boosts, as residents and visitors spend more on products related to a rail trail use. Businesses on rail trails and in close proximity to trails also have seen boosts, as rail trail users patronize these businesses. A 1995 paper summarizes research on this economic phenomenon, finding significant spending by trail users.

Even though the Swampscott Rail Trail does not run directly past Vinnin Square or the Humphrey Street commercial area, it is less than a mile from these areas. Given the size of town, it is easy to imagine that Swampscott would see an economic benefit from the Rail Trail. We imagine businesses supporting trail users in the same way that the Ocean House Surf & Skate Shop on Humphrey Street supports local customers for the entire four miles of beaches from Phillips Beach to Nahant and beyond.

Design/Location

Where will the Rail Trail run?

The Rail Trail will run from Stetson Road to Seaview Avenue, at the Marblehead town line. The Rail Trail will end at Stetson Road, before it reaches the active railroad line. At the Marblehead town line, the Rail Trail will connect to Marblehead’s rail trail. Marblehead’s trail connects to downtown Marblehead and to bike paths and bike lanes in Salem, near Salem State University. You can view the Map page for more details.

What will the Rail Trail look like?

The Rail Trail will be an approximately ten-foot wide, unpaved path. Like the existing Marblehead rail trail, the surface will be hard-packed earth, possibly including an aggregate material such as stone-dust. The corridor itself is between 40 and 80+ feet wide, so the Rail Trail will be situated within a larger area of open space and in a location and manner most beneficial to neighboring properties. As much of the existing vegetation as possible will be maintained (while not inhibiting National Grid access to the power lines). Where additional landscaping is needed, native plants will be added where possible.

Will the Rail Trail be lighted?

No, the Rail Trail will not have lights. Similar to other public parks in Swampscott, posted hours for the Rail Trail will be dawn to dusk.

Will there be any bridges along the Rail Trail at street crossings?

No.  Based on a preliminary engineering review of the corridor, the Rail Trail will not require any bridges.  Street crossings will be designed with adequate safety features including signage, lights and other traffic calming measures reviewed and approved by the Town of Swampscott Traffic Committee, Department of Public Works and Police Department. Safety is the #1 consideration in design of the trail.

Access

Will the Rail Trail comply with the American Disabilities Act?

Absolutely. The Rail Trail will comply with the American Disabilities Act.

Where will people park to access the Rail Trail?

If users of the Rail Trail need to drive to this linear park, they will have an opportunity to park at Swampscott Middle School. From that point, trail users can follow the Rail Trail in either direction. Because the Rail Trail runs through the center of the community, most users will typically walk/bike/run to the Rail Trail to then enjoy the amenity.

How will people gain access to the Rail Trail?

Trail users may gain access to the Rail Trail at the points at which the Rail Trail intersects public roads and other public spaces such as the middle school. The access points and areas where the Rail Trail will cross public streets will be designed, engineered, and constructed to ensure safe access.

How will users of the Rail Trail safely cross the street especially where bridges used to exist?

The Town will ensure safe crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists where the trail intersects a street. Crossings will be clearly indicated with proper street markings and signs. In those areas where there used to be a railroad bridge and stone embankments and where it is now steeply sloped from the trail to street level, the trail will be designed to comfortably descend to street level, such as with switch backs. All road crossings will be designed by professional engineers to ensure maximum safety.

Costs

Who is going to pay for maintaining the Rail Trail?

Maintenance costs for the Rail Trail will not be borne by the Town of Swampscott. Consistent with how it has been successfully done in communities throughout Massachusetts, local volunteer organizations – including existing groups like SPIRIT and the Big Blue Crew – will help maintain the Rail Trail. The Rail Trail Implementation Committee also anticipates the creation of a welcoming and active “Friends of the Swampscott Rail Trail” organization who will act as stewards of the park space.

Based on information from trails around the country, the Rails to Trails Conservancy estimates the yearly maintenance of an unpaved two-mile trail like ours to be $2,000 per year. The Swampscott nonprofit group SPIRIT currently has funding and plans to pay for yearly maintenance of the trail. In addition, local businesses have pledged in-kind donations for landscaping and beautification of the trail.

Who is going to pay for the construction of the Rail Trail?

Construction costs for the Rail Trail will NOT be borne by the Town of Swampscott. Consistent with how similar rail trails have been funded in other communities throughout Massachusetts, this trail will be funded with private donations and with federal, state and non-profit grants. SPIRIT has also secured donations of $175,000 for the construction of the trail, including one $75,000 donation from an abutter to the proposed trail. Several local businesses have also already committed to donating their services to assist in the construction of the Rail Trail.

Impacts (Environment/Property Values/Safety)

How will the Rail Trail affect community safety?

One of the major goals of the Rail Trail is enhance community safety by providing a path with very few street crossings on which people (especially young people) may walk, run, and bike.

With respect to concerns about crime, creation of the Rail Trail will convert a currently-deserted and densely-overgrown corridor into a cleared, maintained, and publicly used space. A 1998 report found that “(t)he research that has been conducted, along with anecdotal evidence, suggests that converting an abandoned rail corridor to a trail actually tends to reduce crime by cleaning up the landscape and attracting people who use the trail for recreation and transportation.”

The Swampscott Police Department is on record as finding that they will be able to provide adequate public safety to protect the community when the trail is established. Research conducted on the subject of crime and rail trails has found that suburban rail trails have a lower average rate of crime when compared to the overall suburban crime rate.

Will my home value be affected by the creation of the Rail Trail?

Research shows that homes located closer to bike paths and greenways see increases in value. A 2016 review in Delaware found that in suburban New Castle County, Delaware, homes within 50 meters of bike paths commanded a 4% price premium. A 2008 study of the Little Miami Scenic Trail found that each foot increase in distance to the trail decreases the sale price of a sample property by $7.05. In other words, being closer to the trail added value to the single-family residential properties. A 2001-02 study looked at approximately 10,000 home sales in Bexar County, Texas, near San Antonio, and found that homes near trails with greenbelts enjoyed a 5% price premium. A similar study done in 2007 in Lexington, MA, found that home sales showed a steady climb of average price within a quarter mile strip each side of the Minuteman Bikeway after the rail trail was built.

How will the wetlands near the Rail Trail be protected?

The Town of Swampscott is required to comply with federal wetland protections laws and the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. If it is determined that the Rail Trail traverses or impacts wetlands, those wetlands will be protected. Construction of the Rail Trail that is within the buffer zone of a wetland will be required to go through a review and approval by the Swampscott Conservation Commission prior to the construction of that section.

Will the Rail Trail affect wildlife habitat?

The path of the Rail Trail will be cleared of any physical impediments but the majority of the land within the rail bed will remain intact for wildlife habitat. A designated and well-maintained trail will alleviate National Grid from undertaking their regular clear-cutting of a much wider swath of land along the rail bed – to the benefit of plants and wildlife. The removal of trash and dumped items along the rail bed will also benefit and enhance wildlife habitat over its current state.

Timing

When will the Rail Trail be completed and ready to use?

The RTIC and Town anticipate the design, engineering, and donation or acquisition of recreational easements to take approximately 9-15 months. Construction of the Rail Trail is anticipated to start immediately thereafter. Portions of the trail will be opened as soon as they are completed.

What are the next steps toward implementing the Rail Trail?

The next steps in implementing the Rail Trail is to design and engineer the trail, including all street crossings, the Town will engage a professional engineer to ensure that the trail is design and engineered in the safest manner possible. Upon substantial completion of the design and engineering, the Town will finalize the donation or acquisition of recreation easements over the portions of the rail land required for the Rail Trail. Throughout this process, the RTIC and the Town will work together to obtain the state and federal grants and private donations to construct the trail.

Misc.

What will the $850,000 be used for?

The requested $850,000 will be used to hire professionals to complete the trail design and engineering and to acquire the rights to a 10-foot wide recreational easement along the National Grid utility corridor. The design and engineering will include topographic plans, a wetlands survey, and road crossing design and permitting plans, among other things.

Should the Town complete the design first so we know how much the Rail Trail will cost?

Abutters to the Rail Trail opposed to the trail have suggested that the Town should first complete the design and engineering of the trail in order to ensure there will be sufficient funding available to acquire the recreational easements needed for the trail.  The Swampscott Finance Committee shared that concern and as a result,  the Rail Trail article overwhelmingly approved by Town Meeting and now before Town voters prudently includes express language requiring that upon completion of the design and engineering, and as a condition to spending any further funds, a new appraisal be completed to ensure that the approved funding (less funds spend on the design) are sufficient to cover the cost to acquire the needed recreational easements.

What is the source of funds for the requested $850,000?

The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee contemplated using either bond proceeds (i.e. debt) or “free cash” (which is unrestricted available funds held by the Town) to cover the project costs. Both the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee elected to bond the $850,000 in order to take advantage of historically low interest rates and to allow the Town to instead apply a significant amount of “free cash” to reduce the tax rate in FY2018. The bond will be repaid over 20-years and the total cost to the Town in the first year will be approximately $65,000, which is only 0.1% of the Town’s $67,000,000 operating budget. The cost to the Town decreases each year thereafter.

How much will this project really cost the town? Couldn’t we use this money for other purposes?

The Board of Selectmen have unanimously decided that implementation of the rail trail is a priority. The $850,000 requested for the Rail Trail in the warrant article will be funded through either free cash or non-excluded debt (bonding). The Town Treasurer has stated that the annual cost to the town to bond this article is approximately $65,000 per year, which equates to only 0.1% of the town’s $67,000,000 operating budget. There are indeed other projects in town requiring funding, several of which Town Meeting will also be voting on May 15th, but there is a recognition that our town has significantly underinvested in open space.

In the past decade, not including the new turf field, which will be used by a small portion of our residents, only approximately 3% of the town’s capital has been invested in open space. This investment is an open space investment for all residents and all neighborhoods.

I have heard the suggestion that the town split the funding request – fund the design now and then the easement acquisition. Is this a good idea?

No, the Board of Selectmen unanimously supports full funding of the Rail Trail design and easement acquisition. They have made a policy decision to move this project forward after 20+ years of debate and discussion – including 3 prior Town Meeting votes overwhelmingly in favor of the Rail Trail. The Board of Selectmen have concluded that it is a mistake to break the funding into phases because without the money to acquire the easement, this topic will continue to be a political discussion, with an uncertain outcome. After 20+ years of debate, it is time to make the trail a reality. Approving the full amount will confirm for National Grid the town’s commitment to move forward and will allow the town to fully-engage with National Grid’s engineering group to ensure the trail is implemented cohesively with the existing utility uses in the rail corridor. Approving the full amount will confirm for all of Swampscott the town’s commitment to move forward, and will facilitate the town working with concerned abutters to the trail to ensure the trail is implemented in the most thoughtful way possible.

Prior Town Meeting Votes did not appropriate money for the Rail Trail. Why is funding now required?

Appraisal and title work done by the Rail Trail Implementation Committee (and paid for by the nonprofit SPIRIT) has confirmed that title to the utility corridor is more complicated than originally understood by National Grid, the town, or SPIRIT. Additionally, and in part because of the title issues relating to the utility corridor, since the last Town Meeting vote, National Grid has stated that it is unable to grant the town a low-cost recreational license for the utility corridor.

In order to address the title issues and to secure the legal rights necessary to facilitate the Rail Trail, the town has decided it is necessary to acquire from National Grid and any other parties holding a title interest in the utility corridor (by eminent domain or otherwise) recreational easements along the utility corridor.

The design and engineering of the trail is needed now to identify the precise location of the 10-foot wide recreational easement to be acquired. Once the recreational easements are secured, the town will be eligible for the federal, state, and non-profit grants for the construction of the stone dust trail – the same grants used by other towns to fund the construction of their rail trails.

Is National Grid now saying it won’t support the creation of the Rail Trail? (Swampscott Reporter, 5/2/17)

No, quite the opposite. Representatives from the town and National Grid met most recently on May 1st to discuss the process for implementing the Swampscott Rail Trail. During this meeting, National Grid acknowledged the town’s intention and right to acquire a recreational easement along the utility corridor. National Grid has committed to working collaboratively with the town on the acquisition and trail implementation. National Grid further committed that, once the town approves the funding necessary to proceed with the Rail Trail, it will have its engineering department work with the town’s trail engineer/designer to coordinate the Swampscott Rail Trail with the utilities located in the utility corridor.

Will the Swampscott Rail Trail be prevented due to litigation?

News reports and comments made at public forums about the Rail Trail include comments from a few abutters threatening “litigation” to delay or prevent the Rail Trail from becoming a reality. While there are many abutters who strongly support the Rail Trail, we understand there are some that have concerns and questions about the trail. The Board of Selectmen have made it clear that the town will seek to meet with each abutter along the utility corridor to ensure that the trail is designed and implemented in a manner sensitive to reasonable concerns and request raised by abutters.

There is no legal process available to abutters or others to successfully prevent the town (and public) from acquiring and using the recreational easement. The only challenge relates to the amount of compensation paid by the town for the recreational easement – and even then, the town receives and has the right to use the recreational easement while any dispute concerning compensation is resolved. As stated above, however, it is the town’s commitment to work with abutters to address reasonable concerns and requests so to avoid disputes.

How have other communities acquired the necessary recreational easements to create rail trails ?

Communities have acquired recreational easements for rail trails from utility companies, the MBTA, railroad companies, and private land owners through donations, consensual agreements and eminent domain. This is consistent with how Swampscott will acquire the recreational easements for the Rail Trail. Below is a list of some of the communities where eminent domain was used to acquire rights (from both private and non-private property owners) for rail or bike trails. Eminent domain is also commonly used by communities to acquire property interests as it clears any potential defects in the property’s title.