Depot awning dispute heads toward lawsuit

RYAN HUTTON/Staff photoThe Methuen Rail Trail Depot at 55 Union St. sits in disrepair, with temporary supports holding up parts of its roof.

METHUEN — The ongoing debate about who is responsible for a rickety awning at the rail trail depot will be decided in court if the city doesn't take action within two weeks, according to an attorney's warning.

A letter dated July 24 and delivered to Mayor James Jajuga's office at City Hall claims the owner of the building that abuts the awning — Laborers' International Union of North America, Local 175 — is not responsible for the fix. 

Attorney Brian McMenimen wrote on behalf of the union that "the awning runs along the property line between the rail trail and the union's property at 55 Union Street. A small fraction of the structure extends onto the union's property (and adjacent property owned/controlled by the VFW). Perhaps 80% or more of the awning is on land controlled by the city."

The union is willing to pay a proportionate share for the cost of the repair or demolition, according to its attorney.

Methuen in recent years acquired the neighboring land from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority through a 99-year lease. The city built a rail trail there — to be completed soon — with the help of a $1.9 million state grant. About $900,000 are left, which the state has approved for use on the awning and at other outdoor recreational areas, said Director of Economic and Community Development Bill Buckley.

Buckley said he has viewed the survey plans "that clearly show a large part of the awning is over what is MBTA property controlled by the city."

"How that legally is interpreted is something I should leave to the attorneys," Buckley said.

McMenimen cites the agreement between the MBTA and Methuen that requires the municipality to "keep, repair, manage, operate and maintain the entire premises in good and clean order, operation, condition and repair."

The awning's poor condition is not lost on city councilors, but half of its members strongly disagree that they should use city funds to address it. They have said they want proof that it is the city's responsibility.

In the wake of hearing about the possible lawsuit, council Chairwoman Jennifer Kannan said next steps are up to City Solicitor Richard D'Agostino. D'Agostino, however, said he recused himself from the case several weeks ago due to past work with the union. He could not name his replacement.

"The only concern I had was the fact that it wasn't clear whether the city actually owns that building or not," Kannan said. "A couple councilors had made notice that it wasn't 100% clear if we actually owned that portion or any portion of the building."

An emailed statement from Paul Fahey, Jajuga's chief of staff, confirmed that the mayor received the union's notice of intent to sue Friday.

Fahey wrote, "the Mayor is reviewing this letter with the City Solicitor and other City officials and will advise the City Council at the earliest possible opportunity."

The union's letter places responsibility on the city to repair or remove the awning "before someone is injured." 

According to the letter, "the city condemned the structure and awarded a bid to a Methuen contractor to make the necessary repairs and renovations to it, only to disavow that contract for reasons that are suspicious at best."

Discussions began at a public meeting in May. Councilors eventually voted down the idea of using $284,000 of the left over state funding to fix the awning and other parts of the union's building. The final count was 4-4, with a member not at the meeting to participate.

The failed work summary mentioned replacing the entire roof of the depot's office building and awnings, repairing damaged roof sheathing and rafters, replacing some ceiling panels and columns and painting the awning.

The deadline for the city's response is Aug. 15.