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Agreement elusive on Ayer rail access

Local officials and residents in Ayer say they are frustrated that an agreement has not been reached between the MBTA and a local businessman that would guarantee clear, safe pedestrian access to the town’s commuter rail platform through his property.

Officials say the access is required according to a deed restriction on the Depot Square land that is owned by Phil Berry, and is needed before construction can begin on a long-awaited $4 million parking lot downtown.

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Town officials said the transit agency had hoped to reach an agreement with Berry by last month, but nothing has been finalized.

“The MBTA has proposed a plan, and we are waiting to hear back from the property owner’s attorney,’’ said Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. “We anticipate that it won’t be long before we hear back from him.’’

Berry could not be reached for comment.

Selectman Christopher Hillman said the town has been trying to negotiate an agreement with Berry for two years, but little had happened until he put up a chain-link fence limiting access to the property in April.

Hillman said he recently spoke with state Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who has agreed to coordinate a meeting between town, state, and federal officials to help expedite an agreement.

“Senator Eldridge and I are requesting everybody meet so we can get on the same page,’’ Hillman said. “There has been a lot of misinformation out there, and we all need to have the same facts.’’

Previously, commuter-rail patrons had access to the Fitchburg/South Acton Line platform by crossing Berry’s property near Carlins Tavern. But in late April, Berry started installing the chain-link fence, which dictated exactly where pedestrians could walk.

Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said he was notified by the Police Department on April 26 that a fence was being constructed, and by April 28 the train platform was completely fenced off. Pontbriand said the fencing created a small corridor for commuters to walk along the tracks. Residents and officials say the new path was on uneven ground and too close to the train tracks.

Pontbriand said the MBTA visited the site on April 29, at which time Berry agreed to take down the fence and work with state officials to find a permanent solution within 30 days. That date, however, has passed.

A group of residents, the Ayer Rail Station Advocates, sent a letter and petition to the state on May 20, urging officials to take action to ensure a safe, clear path from the parking area across Main Street to the platform.

“We want a dedicated route from the street to the platform that is safe and attractive,’’ said resident Jeremy Callahan, a member of the group. “We don’t want a chain-link fence.’’

The petition, sent to Richard Davey, secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, had 300 signatures.

“The commuters accessing the Fitchburg Commuter Rail in Ayer are outraged over these delays and recent attempts by the landowner to totally block access to the train platform,’’ the petition says.

According to documents submitted with the petition, on Sept. 29, 1960, the Boston & Maine Railroad conveyed property known as Depot Square to a private corporation with a deed restriction ensuring public access for 100 years, and the public-access easement was transferred with the deed in subsequent transactions.

The deed restriction allows passengers of the MBTA trains to cross between Main Street and the Ayer Station platforms, and requires the property’s owner to provide and maintain, without charge or cost to the riders, a railroad building on the property with access on foot and by vehicle.

“The property owner has violated the public access deed restriction commitments and has at times restricted access, provided unreliable or inconsistent access, failed to meet maintenance requirements (related to pavement, drainage, and snow and ice removal) making users uncomfortable and at times putting their safety at risk,’’ the petition states.

The group said it would also like to see a task force set up that would be involved in the planning and design of any future changes.

Although a final arrangement is not in place, Pesaturo said, the chain-link fence will not be returning to the site.

“The property owner understands that commuters are entitled to unobstructed access to the train station while a permanent solution is developed,’’ he said.

Pesaturo said MBTA officials took immediate action once they learned about the fence.

“It’s only because of the MBTA’s efforts that the fence came down almost immediately after it was erected,’’ Pesaturo said.

Not only has the issue been an inconvenience to commuters, but it has stalled the construction of the new parking lot on Main Street that officials say is desperately needed for downtown businesses as well as commuter-rail patrons, Pontbriand said. The Ayer stop is the second busiest on the Fitchburg/South Acton Line, officials said.

He said the town is in line to receive state and federal funding for the parking lot, but a clear path between the lot and the platform must be in place before the federal government would release its contribution.

Pontbriand said the current arrangement is not adequate.

“There needs to be a clear agreement,’’ he said. “What exists now, though people are able to get to the train, doesn’t satisfy the federal requirements for access.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.
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