BRUNSWICK — The Brunswick Town Council voted Monday against requesting a more comprehensive federal environmental review of a proposed train maintenance and layover building despite the urging of a neighborhood group that opposes the project’s location.
The 5-4 vote came after more than two hours of public comments on an issue that has divided the town for more than three years, despite the limited role that municipal leaders have in deciding the fate of the project.
Most of those who spoke urged the council to send a letter to federal regulators asking for a full environmental review of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s proposal for a $12 million facility to shelter and maintain Amtrak Downeaster trains.
But several councilors lamented that the issue had become so politicized, including Gov. Paul LePage’s recent decision to weigh in. Instead, they said the town should allow the Federal Railroad Administration to make its decision based on the troves of data already submitted by both sides.
“I have trust in the FRA … that they will be able to sort through it far better than this group,” Councilor John Richardson said just prior to the vote.
The Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates Amtrak’s Downeaster service between Brunswick and Boston, wants to build a 655-foot-long building between Church and Stanwood streets about one-half mile from the Amtrak station. Although it has been used as a rail yard in the past, the site has had limited use in recent decades and the residential neighborhood has grown around it.
Although located in downtown Brunswick, the project is not subject to town zoning because the federal government has authority over railroad projects. The Federal Railroad Administration is reviewing whether to accept the New England rail authority’s environmental assessment, which found no disproportionate impacts from the project, or order a more detailed – and time-consuming – environmental impact statement.
Rail authority officials say the facility will allow Downeaster trains to be kept in Brunswick overnight, eliminating the need for an empty round-trip run overnight between Brunswick and Portland. The heated facility will also allow the diesel locomotives to be kept inside rather than idling on the tracks as they do now.
But would-be neighbors of the facility, led by the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition, contend the enormous facility is ill-suited to a residential neighborhood. They have raised concerns about noise, pollution and vibrations as well as how the building will affect their property values.
Nicole Vinal, who lives with her family and young children on nearby Hennessey Avenue, told the council that children are naturally “curious and quick.” Vinal raised concerns about the adequacy of the video monitoring around the facility and said the size of Monday’s crowd illustrated the gravity of the situation.
“Asking for a review of this facility and potential impacts on our neighborhood and our town is not irrational and is not evil and, believe it or not, is not even a delay tactic,” Vinal said. “It is just common sense.”
Council member Jane Millett agreed, saying the council is not passing judgment on the project or the site but simply asking for a full consideration of the potential impacts.
“We have a responsibility for the safety and security of the citizens of this town and we also have to protect the assets of the (neighbors) when they are threatened,” Millett said.
But Brunswick resident Emily Boochever accused opponents of waging a smear campaign and spreading misinformation.
“If the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition succeeds … the whole town loses potentially its best chance for expanded passenger rail service,” Boochever said.
The council’s decision to stay out of the debate over the environmental impact statement comes two weeks after LePage took the opposite stance.
In a letter to the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Joseph Szabo, LePage questioned the environmental impacts on the local community as well as the accuracy and transparency of the rail authority’s environmental assessment.
LePage also questioned whether other sites on the eastern side of town – closer to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station – would offer more benefit to the local economy.
“In light of all these concerns I believe this process requires a significant and thorough review that ensures a rational, open, objective and transparent process for MLF (maintenance and layover facility) siting,” LePage wrote.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: