AYER -- Selectmen received a weary update on the Ayer Rail Trail parking project at their meeting Tuesday night, just nine days after private property owner Phil Berry erected a fence around his property in an apparent dispute that must be resolved before anything moves forward.
Montachusett Regional Transit Authority officials said the project cannot proceed until an accessible path from the parking lot to the commuter station is identified, as the Federal Transit Administration issued $3.2 million for the project that will not be released until then.
The update had been planned for Tuesday even before Berry surprised the town by erecting a fence that redirected people around the edges of his property.
MART Administrator Mohammed Kahn showed selectmen four path options the agency presented to Berry, but said Berry was not very agreeable to almost all of them.
He said Berry might allow a 12-foot corridor to the railway property owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and PanAm. But the MBTA and PanAm object to that path, Kahn said, because it is too close to the railway line for people to walk.
The second option includes a path that runs along the Medicine Shoppe and in front of the Advocates building, while another runs in a nearly direct line from Main Street straight to the commuter-rail station. The fourth option is a nearly right-angled path between two of Berry's properties on Main Street, later running parallel to the tracks leading to the station.
Kahn said Berry is required to provide a public easement on his property that allows people to cross over it to access the station, according to his deed.
"But there is nothing defined on that in this route, so therefore people can go anywhere and go to the platform, which obviously the owner doesn't like," Kahn said.
MART also claims Berry is supposed to provide a railroad passenger building with a waiting room, ticket office, baggage room and bathrooms in accordance with the deed.
George Kahale, transit-project director for the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, said the issue really needs to be resolved between Berry and the MBTA. But in the meantime, he said, there is a fear of losing federal funding by October, when the federal fiscal year ends.
This issue is the part that MART is unable to fix, Kahn said.
"This small thing is holding up the whole money expenditure and we're losing this construction season," he said.
If the issue isn't resolved, Kahn said, the impact will be really serious.
"They have no choice but to relocate the station or shut down the station," he said.
The town and the MBTA have eminent domain power, Kahn said, although nobody wants to exercise that as it's not the best thing to do. He said state representatives such as Sen. Jamie Eldridge should be involved with the process.
Some residents sounded off on the situation too, after the fence Berry erected last Sunday redirected them to the edges of property rather than through it.
Ellen FitzPatrick said it is an extremely uncomfortable commute during bad weather, where after a five-minute walk to the station, commuters might find their train is delayed but will have nowhere warm to wait.
She also encouraged selectmen not to give up on the deed's requirement for the passenger building.
"If he's being so difficult, I don't understand why we aren't holding his feet to the fire and saying, 'You have a requirement to provide this access and you need to provide the access,' " she said. Maybe that could become a negotiating tool, she added.
Beth Suedmeyer also suggested that the project consider traffic flow, noting that public access also encompasses circulation for drop-off and pickup as well as emergency vehicle access.
Kahn said he, Pontbriand and the MBTA will try to force negotiations in a more stringent manner.
"We do not like to have eminent domain, but in some cases you have no choice," he said.
Issues with Treasurer Stephanie Gintner resurfaced later in the meeting, as Pontbriand recommended selectmen authorize him to begin the hiring process for the controversial benefits/payroll manager position.
The position was initially presented as a reclassification of assistant treasurer Melisa Doig's position, but was shot down by selectmen in 2012 over financial concerns. Doig, who has a history of personnel problems with Gintner, resigned her post last month for another position in Groton.
Now, the position would be an entirely new one.
Gintner argued before the board that various parts of the town's personnel policy were not followed in the position's reclassification. Additionally, she argued, the town has voted not to have a finance department, but that is just what seems to be in the works.
"You have no regard for what the townspeople have voted, what they care about, what they want," she said. "You just have no respect for the townspeople at all."
The new three-member board had an instant negative reaction.
"You're the one suing the town, so I'd back off on that," said Chairman Christopher Hillman.
Selectman Jannice Livingston said she took offense to how Gintner worded the accusation.
"Let me give you my opinion as to what the townspeople want," she said. "The townspeople want the fighting to stop. The townspeople would like a Town Hall that's functional, they would like their town government to be functional. That is what we are attempting to do."
Gintner said she would like to have her assistant-treasurer position, but Livingston insisted the position is archaic.
After further back-and-forth between the board, Gintner and former selectman Frank Maxant, the board approved the beginning of the hiring process. The board also approved appointing a screening committee for the position, consisting of Pontbriand, Gintner, the finance director, the fire chief and the vice-chairman of the finance committee.
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