Monday, October 24, 2011

From Tracks to Trail

The steam locomotive that travled through the woods near Northport tHigh School.

Former Town Councilman Stu Besen with Margo Myles, Coordinator of Historic Preservation.

Until the 1970s, a K4 steam locomotive traveled through the woods across from Northport High School on railroad tracks that led to Northport Lumber.

That same path, or at least 4.4 acres of it just west of Maplewood Road owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, is close to being preserved as part of the federal Rails to Trails program in a license agreement between the MTA and the Town of Huntington.

“We’re getting this at no cost to taxpayers,” said Town Councilman Stuart Besen, in photo above with Margo Myles, the Town's Coordinator of Historic Preservation. Councilman Besen sponsored the resolution approved unanimously at the Board’s May 22 meeting.

“The charge is one dollar but the MTA agreed to waive even that.” The Town of Huntington’s Environmental and Open Space committee recommended the Town Board execute a license agreement with the MTA after Neal Keavney, a Town resident, who lives nearby and uses it frequently, nominated the trail for preservation.

The committee then walked the wooded trail that no longer has railroad slats on it, according to Margo Myles, Coordinator of Open Space. Before officially opening what will be known as the Laurel Hill Rail Trail to the public, the Town will clear it of dangerous debris and items that have been dumped there.

The debris includes two large hardened piles of asphalt and building materials. “We also have to add some drainage and make sure that the access points are safe,” Ms. Myles said. It can be accessed at several spots including a small entry on Laurel Hill Road just east of Maplewood.

At the same time, Councilman Besen, said the Town seeks to leave the trail in as much of a natural state as possible similar to the Henry Ingraham Nature Preserve. “We want to clear it a little and make sure that the walking paths are navigable but the goal is to keep it natural,” he said.

Ms. Myles said that “Rails to Trails” is a natural program. “It’s not a name the Town made up,” she said. “It’s a national movement to convert abandoned rail corridors into park space and there’s no more natural conversion.”

Mr. Keavney, who remembers when the locomotives traveled that route to get to the lumberyard, said that the trail is widely used and he has not come across anyone who opposed preserving it as park space. “I bicycle back there and I know others who do. I’ve seen people back there with all-terrain strollers, joggers, just people walking so I definitely think it’s positive,” he said.

The trail is especially important to the surrounding area residents, because their neighborhood comprised of hilly roads, no sidewalks and small shoulders, does not lend itself to pedestrians.

An adjacent 4.7-acre parcel owned by the New York State Department of Transportation will likely become part of the Town’s park system as well, if all goes as planned. This land was originally meant to extend Route 231, a road that currently travels from Route 27A to Deer Park Avenue, but those plans were killed in 1982 and the property has been unused since then, according to Eileen Peters, Public Information Officer for the DOT’s Long Island Region office.

An application was also filed with the Town at one point for the property to be developed as homes and the plat to be called Orchard Court Plat. “We’ve been working closely with [State Legislator] Andrew Raia to work out a license agreement with the state that is similar to the MTA agreement,” Councilman Besen said. The residents became alarmed when the DOT sent letters out to area residents in early 2006 telling them that the property might be sold because of unauthorized use.

“From what we can see, some have taken over the property as their own including planting vegetable gardens. That’s illegal. You cannot use state property without proper permission,” Ms. Peters said, adding that the DOT would likely approve a transfer to a local municipality for a “nominal” fee. A resolution was approved at the Town of Huntington’s June 20, 2006 Board meeting requesting the DOT transfer the property.

The Town seeks park stewards for the Laurel Hill Rail Trail and for its many beaches and parks who will be, as Ms. Myles said, “the eyes, ears and mouth” of the parks, filing two reports each year and alerting the Town to any serious problems that need to be addressed. Anyone interested in being a park steward should contact the Town’s Conservation Board at 351-3398 or attend a meeting June 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall.