David vs. Goliath: Charlotte family battles railway giants over stockpiled freight cars

June-1-F-Champlain-Flyer-5-C-copyBy Lettie Stratton

Jackson and Lydia Clemmons have lived on the same Charlotte property at 2158 Greenbush Road since 1961. They’ve farmed the land and improved the property, which boasts historic buildings from the 1700s. The Clemmons’ property is situated on either side of railway tracks, formerly used for the short-lived Champlain Flyer commuter train that ran between Burlington, Shelburne, and Charlotte from 2000-2003.

The Clemmons have watched the railway evolve from the passing of a rare freight train, to the Champlain Flyer commuter train, and now to the stockpiling of freight cars and containers on the tracks adjacent to their property.

Lydia said the trouble started after the Champlain Flyer ceased to run. She and her family began noticing freight cars sitting idle behind their home for weeks on end, and often had access to their property blocked by the parked cars. The Clemmons filed a formal letter of complaint to the Town of Charlotte, citing obstruction of scenic views as well as many safety and hazard concerns.

“There have been empty cars filled with flammable materials,” Clemmons explained. “Fire trucks have had to come put out fires.” The Clemmons are concerned with not only their own safety, but also the safety of others, especially young children, who come onto their property and may be tempted to play on or near the hazardous stockpiled cars. “They [VT Railway] should have a designated area where they put their freight,” said Clemmons. “It’s absolutely 100 percent wrong. They don’t want to do the right thing because they don’t want to spend the money. They are showing no respect to their neighbors.”

Clemmons said the often graffiti-covered cars have been parked on the tracks near their property consistently since February. “We can understand them [VT Railway] transporting material to and from Burlington, but we don’t want a freight yard in our backyard. It’s depreciating our property,” she said.

A number of the parked cars in question are DOT 111 tank cars, which is concerning to the Clemmons’ because of the associated safety hazards. The Clemmons’ daughter (also Lydia) discovered an article in Eastern Iowa’s “The Gazette” that describes DOT 111 cars as “outdated,” “prone to puncture,” and “blamed for explosions and spills across North America.” [http://thegazette.com/subject/news/public-safety/fiery-derailment-near-dubuque-involved-outdated-tank-cars-20150204]

The Town of Charlotte passed the Clemmons’ letter on to Vermont Railway, whose lawyer responded to the formal complaint. But the Clemmons have seen no lasting changes. “We’ve just been waiting,” Clemmons said. “We’ve been doing our research.”

Selden Houghton from Vermont Railway said there is no policy for how long cars can sit idle on tracks. “The regulations that govern us are all federal,” he explained. “Storage of rail cars fluctuates with freight traffic and seasonal business. Storage space is limited so we utilize all the space we have.”

In the Town of Charlotte’s All-Hazards Mitigation Plan, clause 16 reads: “The Town prohibits the long-term storage of rail cars in Town as this diminishes the scenic value of the rural character of the Town, creates safety hazards from the potential exposure of hazardous chemicals, and can invite vandalism, trespassing and unlawful conduct.” Jeannine McCrumb, Charlotte’s Town Planner, said that although this clause exists, it can’t be enforced. “Basically we don’t have jurisdiction over what goes on. It has to do with interstate commerce at a federal level,” she explained. “The state owns property and the railroad leases it.”

The Clemmons’ daughter Lydia said she and her family have been getting tossed around from place to place in their quest for information. “The railway has found a really nice little loophole where nobody has jurisdiction,” she said. “We have at times counted more than 20 freight cars stored for weeks on the tracks running adjacent to our property. Of all the space that’s available in this state, why here? We’re ready to go to battle. It’s not just one family’s fight. These are neighbors and this is a town.”