Plaistow and Atkinson officials agreed last night to prevent a controversial site from being considered for a Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority train station in New Hampshire.
The agreement comes after talks between the two towns and the state, after the state said it would not provide money for a feasibility study if there was not support from both towns.
Plaistow officials have been hoping to bring the commuter rail and a layover station into town for many years. State transportation officials had previously approved spending $659,000 for a feasibility study to determine a possible location. The agreement prevents the Westville Homes site on the border of Atkinson and Plaistow from being studied.
The agreement was passed by a 4-1 vote by the Plaistow selectmen, with Daniel Poliquin being the lone dissenter. Atkinson selectmen unanimously voted in favor of the agreement.
Despite the majority vote, Plaistow selectmen made their displeasure with the process known to Executive Councilor Christopher Sununu before signing the agreement at their weekly meeting.
“We thought we had an agreement with the Department of Transportation that this would go forward.” said Plaistow Selectman John Sherman. “We were caught a bit off guard with these additional stipulations.”
While many of the Plaistow selectmen wanted a study to be done to determine whether the Westville site was feasible, Sununu maintained that it would be a waste of time and money to study a site that is not a real possibility.
“We have removed the risk of failure for a project that you want to see go forward,” Sununu said. “The facts that the state has in its possession is that the site will never happen for a layover station. I don’t want to go forward with a study that may say it is and be doomed to failure.”
In addition to the Westville Homes site, the Pen Box site on Main Street will also not be considered as part of the study.
Many members of the Atkinson and Plaistow communities showed up at the meeting with signs showing their strong disapproval and wanting their opinions to be heard by the selectmen. Sherman maintained that the project would not go forward without a vote from the public, but wanted to gain all the necessary facts first.
“We are concerned with the idea that we are going to force this project to happen no matter what,” he said. “We have taken the approach that we should primarily get the public involved after we do this study. We wanted to have a base of knowledge and be able to answer any questions.”
But after a warrant article voted on by the public at last year’s town meeting said Plaistow residents didn’t want the project to continue, residents questioned why they continued to keep pursuing it.
“I thought it was spineless of the Board of Selectmen,” said Sherm Kellogg of Plaistow. “Plaistow voters said they don’t want that information.”
Atkinson selectman Todd Barbera believed the two towns had come to an agreement last week, but was pleased it was finally able to be settled last night.
“The study can now move forward without any opposition from Atkinson,” he said. “Ultimately, we are pleased that the residents finally have assurances that they will be protected.”
Poliquin was most vocal against Sununu and questioned the way the state government has handled the project so far.
“I feel like the state is holding a gun to my head,” he said. “I don’t feel it’s right because, with what I have seen, even if I was to sign this agreement, I take absolutely no stock that it will be upheld going forward.”
Sherman said the town is prepared to move forward without the Westville site. He did not know which other sites would be considered and said it was up to whichever consultants conducted the study to determine that.
New Hampshire Department of Transportation federal liaison Mark Sanborn said the next steps is to get the study ready to be approved by the governor. He does not expect to happen until mid to late March.
Although Sherman signed the agreement, he warned Atkinson residents about a future layover site being built in Haverhill.
“We certainly run the risk of a layover station being built in Haverhill near the town line of Atkinson,” he said. “You might find that layover station has more of an impact on the citizens of Atkinson than this one and you will have less input into that one.”