Lack of trust still stands for Vermont Rail’s Shelburne development

Shelburne Town Manager Joe Colangelo and Vermont Rail System President David Wulfson look at plans for the new transfer station on Shelburne Road at the Selectboard meeting on Jan. 5. Photo by Lynn Monty
Shelburne Town Manager Joe Colangelo and Vermont Rail System President David Wulfson look at plans for the new transfer station on Shelburne Road at the Selectboard meeting on Jan. 5. Photo by Lynn Monty

In a four-page letter to the town of Shelburne, received prior to his requested executive session with the town, Vermont Rail System President David Wulfson explained his relationship with his family-owned rail company and with Shelburne where he resides.

“Sadly, many statements have been made that are not true,” Wulfson wrote in the letter. “Even more painful to me personally, I have been accused of being callous and not caring about the town or people of Shelburne.”

Town Manager Joe Colangelo, the Selectboard, Wulfson and other rail representatives attended the closed meeting on Feb. 2 to hash out differences about Vermont Rail building a new transfer station on Shelburne Road.

Mainly, the town would like the ability to mitigate the worst of the environmental, traffic and other impacts the transfer station will bring. Colangelo said in a Jan. 5 Selectboard meeting, “We simply have no idea what the impacts will be or what mitigation will help. It won’t be until this time next year that we will know the full impact.”

A response letter was written to the residents of Shelburne from the Selectboard on Feb. 3 indicating that Wulfson’s letter was “replete with misstatements, mischaracterizations and critical omissions.” The letter describes Vermont Rail’s refusal to provide anything other than vague details of the project.

Wulfson has asked the Selectboard to trust him in place of their preferred impact studies, which caused the town to choose litigation to halt the project until some studies are conducted.

When asked about negative impacts to the Shelburne community as a result of the increased truck traffic at that initial meeting, Wulfson told the Selectboard he would deal with it when the time comes. “You’ll just have to take my word on that,” he said. “If there is anything we can do that does not adversely affect our project, we will do.”

The key sticking point in his statement is the “does not adversely affect our project” part. It validated for the town Wulfson’s belief that the needs of the railway outweigh the needs of the Shelburne community.

Further proving that point, Wulfson told legislators in a Senate Finance Committee Meeting the last week of January, “The rail network as a whole is more important than any little town like Shelburne who thinks they can control what the railroad does. This is the perfect example of why preemption was created.”

That Senate Finance Committee Meeting was held in Montpelier to allow Wulfson to explain the situation on Shelburne.

In an email interview on Feb. 3, Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Chris Cole said, “VTrans role in this project is to evaluate the traffic that will be entering and exiting the facility to ensure that it does so safely and doesn’t create safety issues on the state highway or cause unreasonable congestion. We are currently undertaking that analysis.”

Without that analysis complete, Wulfson said in his recent letter to the town of Shelburne, “Despite what people are being told, there will be no increase in truck traffic traveling to the south through the village of Shelburne.”

Selectboard chair Gary von Stange asked Wulfson on Jan. 5 if he could estimate the number of truck trips to be expected in and out of the new facility.

“I do, but I am not at liberty to talk about it,” Wulfson answered.

Von Stange pleaded, “This is our village center. It’s a critical part of the town. It’s nice. We are trying to figure out the impact. We do understand your rights and preemption, but we need to give people notice about what’s going to happen here.”

While claiming he’s been open to questions and transparent about his plans for the transfer station, Wulfson also wrote in his recent letter to the town, “On January 20, 2016, in response to the town’s request for additional information about traffic and other matters, it was explained to the town that the railroad was prohibited by federal law from disclosing that information to the public.”

Wulfson wrote that traffic and other matters could be disclosed in executive session.

Colangelo declined to comment if they were addressed in the executive session on Feb. 2.

In the closing of his letter, Wulfson said, “I am more than happy to share any information that I may legally discuss with any that may inquire. Please bear in mind, however, that the town has chosen to file a lawsuit against us rather than engage in meaningful dialog about our project. Because of the lawsuit, I may not be at liberty to discuss every detail you may want to discuss. Regardless of the towns aggressive legal attack I am nonetheless still trying to meet with the town and have them discuss with me their concerns rather than the current town’s position of ‘We don’t want you here.’ I will keep trying.”

Trust issues

Colangelo said he cannot disclose what was said in the Feb. 2 executive session but did say the general conversation was positive by both the town and railway representatives. The meeting potentially set the groundwork for future negotiations, he said.

“This morning Railroad Lane was reopened and parking can resume there as before,” Shelburne Town Manager Joe Colangelo said. “David and I will work in good faith toward an agreeable lease.”

Wulfson had blocked the lane and parking there at the defunct commuter rail train station just after receiving notice of zoning violation from Colangelo and the filing of a motion of preliminary injunction in environmental court to have Vermont Rail System cease work on the project.

As for why it was closed, Wulfson said in the letter to the town that it was because of illegal activities reported in the parking lot after hours, even though he told legislators in that Senate Finance Committee Meeting otherwise. “I told the town manager if we had an adversary relationship, I would take possession of that parking lot,” Wulfson said in that meeting.

Shelburne Police Department Sgt. Al Fortin said other than two cases of minor vandalism in the past decade, nothing illegal has been reported at the location. Fortin patrols the area like any other area in town and has never been faced with any nefarious activities there, he said.

Selectboard Chair Gary von Stange was happy to see the concrete barriers, steel cables and locks had been removed Feb. 3. “We applaud Mr. Wulfson for removing the barriers to provide better access for our fire and police departments.”

And a third reason for Wulfson’s barriers was given by Chief Jerry Ouimet of Shelburne’s fire department who said he was told by Vermont Rail that they had locked access to Railroad Lane temporarily for the purpose of storing construction materials and equipment. He also said the closure in no way affected emergency response of the fire department.

Stormwater runoff concerns

The Wulfson family owns Vermont Rail System which owns and operates all railroad activity in Vermont.

In the Senate Finance Committee Meeting, legislators brought up an issue of salt leaking into Thetford wells just after Vermont Rail System installed salt sheds there a decade ago.

“We caused some problems and I want you to know we fixed those problems,” Wulfson said. “Yes, Thetford was a mess, guaranteed. This is why we have new federal stormwater runoff rules now.”

Wulfson said he was trying to include Shelburne in the process before they chose litigation. “What I tell them at the Selectboard meetings is, you kinda have to trust me,” he told legislators.

The Thetford salt sheds were erected without any local input, only trust in Wulfson, because the railroad asserted federal preemption then, as it is now in Shelburne. In Thetford, federal preemption allowed Vermont Rail System to install faulty stormwater runoff for the salt stored there which subsequently contaminated a residential well, the Thetford Town Clerk’s office confirmed.

As Wulfson said in his Feb. 2 letter to the town of Shelburne, he owns Vermont Rail System with four other family members. Their 52-year-old company was started by Wulfson’s father. “My father instilled in all of us in our family a sense of community and above all, honesty and integrity,” he wrote.

Even though no official impact studies have been done Wulfson wrote, “While it might be difficult to understand, the fact is that this project is good for the environment.”

Wulfson wrote that Shelburne’s new transfer station will be built with state-of-the-art methods designed to control and mange stormwater, and that Vermont Rail has filed a stormwater plan for the facility and has applied for the required federal permit.

“The relocation of salt storage from Burlington to Shelburne is good for the community and good for the environment,” Wulfson reiterated further down the page, citing no impact study, but offering just his word.

Wulfson told Shelburne News in an email on Feb. 3, “We first sat down with the town back in June to show them our site plans and invite public input, and we are glad we finally had the chance to have that conversation with the Selectboard last night and try to correct some of the inaccurate misinformation that is spreading about our project. I don’t want to go into details of the meeting and can’t speculate about the Selectboard’s intent, but I do agree that we are hopeful conversation will move forward more reasonably. I’m proud of the rail facility we are building.”

Vermont Rail System closed on the land purchase on Dec. 28, Colangelo said. “Developers come in and talk to me all of the time with their ideas,” he said. “Why would I make it public before a purchase was made?”

After learning of the purchase, Colangelo asked Wulfson to formally present his plan for the land in the Jan. 5 Selectboard meeting to answer questions prior to development to ease town concerns. Wulfson went ahead with clearing the land before that meeting, just days after the official closing.

“I was definitely not under the impression Vermont Rail System was expecting me to make our June 23rd meeting public,” Colangelo said. “In July, I requested additional information. Nothing was provided until Dec. 28. Knowing what I know now I would have been more aggressive, obviously, but given the information available to me at the time there was no reason to sound the alarm.”

Please note: James Mack of the Shelburne Police Department confirmed after this was published that the location referred to is not Railroad Lane. Railroad Lane is on the north side of Harbor Road, and just west of the railroad tracks. The location that has been closed and now reopened is 71 Harbor Road, which is the rail station and parking lot. Mack also confirmed no illegal activity has been reported at 71 Harbor Road.

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