The town of Shelburne is feeling railroaded. Literally.
Vermont Railway has been chugging full speed ahead to build a freight storage and distribution yard on the west side of Route 7, a mile north of the village center.
The facility — two 50,000-square-foot road-salt sheds, a fuel island and tanks, a rail spur, and parking for up to 30 trucks — would replace a comparable Vermont Railway operation on Briggs Street in Burlington, where City Market/Onion River Co-op plans to open a second store.
Vermont Rail plans to bypass local and state Act 250 review under a federal exemption designed to preserve interstate commerce — a move that has set off alarms in Shelburne, a town known for well-groomed suburban streets, lakeshore luxury homes, open fields and carefully maintained historic buildings.
"We're trying to maintain quintessential Vermont," said Sage Tucker-Ketcham, executive director of the Shelburne Craft School.
The freight yard won't be visible from the school or businesses in Shelburne's historic center. But residents are worried it might increase truck traffic on already-busy Route 7, which bisects the village.
Preparations for construction began last month on the 32-acre wooded parcel, just west of the Harbour Industries manufacturing complex next to Route 7. The railroad cleared acres of trees, to the dismay of residents who can see the property from Route 7. And while the parcel is zoned for industrial use, it's in an area that lures walkers, birders and kayakers. It's surrounded by Vermont Nature Conservancy land and lazy, curving stretches of the LaPlatte River, which feeds into Lake Champlain's Shelburne Bay.
Kevin Clayton, owner of Village Wine and Coffee, said the railroad's actions have stirred up the community. "This is a really small sandbox," Clayton said. "You've got to play nicely."
The fact that such a large project could be exempt from state environmental review is an issue that other communities should care about, he added. "This is beyond NIMBY ... You can't call it a Shelburne thing."
At least one Shelburne resident supports the project. David Wulfson, president of Vermont Railway, lives on Webster Road just east of the parcel, which his late father purchased decades ago. Wulfson vowed to use the railroad's legal firepower to push the facility through and insisted it will be a "Cadillac" project.
Trucks can get to the site almost directly from Route 7, and it's set apart from residential neighborhoods — although there are some houses on the other side of the road.
Town officials said Wulfson has refused to provide basic details, ranging from truck-traffic forecasts to the volume of goods and fuel expected to come in by rail. Wulfson said he's been more than upfront with information. He met with town officials in executive session Tuesday, and at least six times before that, he pointed out. On January 20, Wulfson responded in writing — albeit vaguely — to nine questions from town officials. He shared the email with Seven Days.
In an interview at the Burlington rail yard, Wulfson remarked, "I don't want to get into 'He said, she said, we said.' All I know is, we're going to build a facility that's good for the region." As he talked about his plans, light snow fell on the freight cars parked outside.
Vermont Railway operates on or owns about 350 miles of track in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire. It leases most of its Vermont track from the state.
Although this winter has been unseasonably warm, cold snowy winters the prior two years drove up the demand for road salt. Some municipal customers ran out. Vermont Railway wants more storage capacity for the ice-melting compound and has outgrown the jumble of salt sheds and industrial buildings it owns in Burlington's South End, just south of the city's main rail yard.
A real estate deal is driving the move to Shelburne, too. Last spring, City Market signed a contract to buy Vermont Railway's 4-acre parcel at Briggs Street, where the salt sheds are currently located, as well as an adjoining parcel owned by Barrett Trucking. The buildings will be demolished to make way for City Market's second store. Barrett headquarters would move, along with the salt sheds, to Vermont Railway's Shelburne facility.
It's time to get the salt-truck traffic out of the South End, Wulfson said. Houses sit within 150 feet of the Burlington salt sheds, while the Shelburne parcel won't affect residential neighborhoods, he added.
"We're not changing anything," he said. "All we're doing is moving from the neighborhoods in Burlington to the backwoods in Shelburne."
But salt isn't the only commodity Wulfson wants at the freight yard, known in rail-speak as an "intermodal facility." He hopes trains will bring other cargo, too. "We're looking at lumber. We're looking at fuel oil," Wulfson said. "We're looking at heavy construction equipment like backhoes and tractors and bucket-loaders that can come in by rail from the midwestern factories."
Nationally, trains are carrying more of the freight that trucks once hauled. "The railroad business is probably as busy as it's ever been in general," he said. "Our business continues to grow, and we hope to keep it that way."
Shelburne is fighting the plan with legal actions. It slapped Vermont Railway with a zoning violation for starting construction without the proper local permit and got word out to the public. More than 200 people came to a selectboard meeting last week, and a February 9 meeting at Shelburne Community School is expected to draw an even bigger crowd.
A side issue fueled the fire. After the town filed the zoning violation, Wulfson last week retaliated by closing off a parking lot next to the former Champlain Flyer commuter rail station in the village. The lot had been used for a half dozen years as free public parking and a cut-through for emergency vehicles. The closure outraged residents. Somebody cut the metal cable that Wulfson strung up to block the lot.
Wulfson re-opened the lot Tuesday night after meeting with the Shelburne select board in executive session. He says he is willing to essentially sublet the state-owned lot for free for five years. The town hopes to have the lease signed within a week.*
Meanwhile, Colangelo told Seven Days that the rail project needs a thorough review. "Contaminants such as salt and fuel will be stockpiled at the facility. It's very close to the LaPlatte [River] and Lake Champlain," Colangelo said.
Selectboard chair Gary von Stange said Wulfson is operating under a veil of secrecy: "Mr. Wulfson has refused to provide any details. Accordingly, it is impossible to ascertain his true plans because he personally has refused to provide those plans."
It's unfair that other developments are subject to review and Wulfson's plans are not, von Stange said: "He wants to be special."
The railroad concedes that under the Clean Water Act, it needs at least two federal stormwater permits — one for construction and the other to commence general operations. The company's December 23 application for the construction permit is pending. That prompted the Department of Environmental Conservation to issue a notice of violation on Thursday, on grounds that the clearing and site-preparation work required the permit.
Wulfson said the work was not construction and therefore not a violation. He said he intended to comply with federal permit requirements.
The federal exemption that Vermont Railway is invoking to avoid a broader permit review is the 1995 Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. It has withstood legal challenges both nationally and closer to home.
The state lost a legal battle in 2005 against Wulfson's Green Mountain Railroad, which argued that it was not subject to Act 250 review for a rail loading and storage facility in Rockingham.
In an earlier case from 2000, Vermont Railway won on some, but not all, points in a battle with the City of Burlington over the federal exemption on permits for the Briggs Street facility.
For state transportation officials, the Shelburne project is tricky terrain. Although it's hugely unpopular with locals, state policy actively encourages investment in rail because it moves goods more efficiently with less fuel and gets trucks off the roads. The state has a grant program to help pay for rail spurs to intermodal facilities similar to the one Vermont Railway envisions in Shelburne.
But loud local opposition has made its way to Montpelier, and state officials aren't cheerleading for Vermont Railway right now. At least not openly.
At the behest of Chittenden County legislators and state officials, Wulfson visited Montpelier last Thursday and shared some of his plans with lawmakers and with Chris Cole, Vermont's transportation secretary.
In an interview with Seven Days, Cole spoke carefully. "I'm not going to comment on the facility, as to whether we support it or oppose it, because it's not really our role," he said.
In Cole's opinion, Vermont Railway would need a state highway access permit if it creates a new curb cut onto Route 7. For now, it's using an existing curb cut off Route 7, a short access road that leads to Harbour Industries.
But Wulfson's plans show the railroad would improve access to the road. So Cole is pressing him to provide traffic studies and said he verbally warned Wulfson that the company could face a permit violation if Vermont Railway fails to produce them.
Cole knows the state has already lost one big case against the federal exemption in Rockingham. The lesson for the state and Shelburne, he said, is to negotiate rather than litigate.
"We've been down this road before," Cole said. "We understand where the boundaries are. And really, what we have found is that it's easier to get what you want working with the railroad cooperatively rather than trying to battle with them in court." He added: "That would be my only advice, my only comment, to the town."
Read a February 2 letter from Vermont Railway to the town of Shelburne:
Read a response from the Shelburne Selectboard:
*Update February 3, 2016: This story has been updated to reflect the results of a Tuesday night meeting between the town and the railroad, which has reopened the parking lot it owns.