AYER -- Following years of attempting to obtain land needed to access a planned $4.2 million commuter-rail platform, selectmen voted to begin the process that could lead to taking it by eminent domain.
In order to qualify for a $3.2 million federal grant, the public must own the access, Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said at Tuesday's selectmen's meeting.
The selectmen unanimously approved an article for the May Town Meeting Warrant asking for approval to attempt to take the land by eminent domain. The article requires a two-thirds vote to pass, Pontbriand said.
The board also approved using funds from the legal counsel line to appraise the land prior to Town Meeting, a cost Pontbriand estimated at $2,000 to $4,000.
The eminent domain process can be stopped at any time, it the property owner and town come to an agreement, he said.
The town learned of the requirement in January 2013 and has been working on obtaining the land since then, said Chairwoman Jannice Livingston in a chronology she read during the meeting.
Negotiations involving the owner, identified in a Sun article as Phil Berry, the town, the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority, the MBTA and the Federal Transit Administration began at that time.
They made little progress. In April 2014, the property owner blocked the access beside Carlin's Tavern with fencing. The MBTA ordered the obstruction removed.
In October 2014, the property owner and the MBTA came to an agreement, Livingston said.
In December 2014, the Planning Board received documents that were not consistent with the agreement. The plans were not conducive to meeting the FTA requirement.
Negotiations continued until March when the property owner and his lawyer filed a lawsuit in Land Court against the MBTA seeking a removal of easements and covenants. All informal negotiations stopped.
In December, residents requested the board proceed with eminent domain.
The board tried one last time to resolve the issue. The board met with the property owner in executive session.
The minutes from that meeting have not been approved and no details were released by Livingston.
"Tonight, after three years of hard work and good faith effort by the town of Ayer, the town has now exhausted all options to acquire the Depot Square access property, and now we come to what we need to talk about," Livingston read. "It is my belief that we are left with no choice but to pursue eminent domain."
The two other selectmen agreed wholeheartedly.
"We've done more than any other board trying to get a resolution," said Selectman Gary Luca. "Take off the gloves."
"Some clown wants to hold the town of Ayer hostage," Selectman Chris Hillman said. He supported the eminent domain taking and suggested including one of the buildings close to the tracks.
The MBTA, which has more power than other agencies, is also at fault, he said. "They should be thrown under the bus."
After the appraised value is known, selectmen can decide how much of the property they would attempt to take by eminent domain, Pontbriand said.
If Town Meeting approves moving forward, then the case can go to Land Court. If the court approves the taking, money for the purchase would likely come from MART, one of funders, Pontbriand said.
"We have to take that leap and ask the Land Court to decide," Livingston said.
Follow Anne O'Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.