AYER -- As the town awaits a response from private landowner Phil Berry, a group of residents to be known as the Ayer Train Station Advisory Committee is working to move forward with the long-awaited plan to expand the downtown parking lot near the Rail Trail to 180 spaces.
Selectmen appointed Kathleen O'Connor, Jeremy Callahan and Patrick Hughes to the three-member committee, tasked with meeting with government agencies and officials about the parking project -- an idea now more than 10 years in the making.
"The intent behind this was to formalize the ability to get information and to be a part of the process," O'Connor told selectmen last week. "As a regular commuter, I'm asked all the time what's going on and don't have a lot of answers."
The new advisory group will serve as a conduit between the selectmen, residents and commuters, providing updates on the project.
Group members will also meet with the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, bringing comments and questions to the agencies.
"This is jumping back into something I was very active in 10 years ago," said Hughes, who served on a parking task force created in 2006 to come up with parking ideas. "Things were very volatile back then, when the first discussion came up."
Former selectman Carolyn McCreary, who chaired the parking task force, is an alternate member along with resident Harry Zane.
Selectman Gary Luca said the group wasn't subject to Open Meeting Law, arguing that some people might take issue with meetings that might not be posted.
Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand clarified that the group is a citizen group, asking the board to symbolically approve the appointees.
But after the meeting, Pontbriand said that he recommended to the group that it still adhere to the Open Meeting Law. The law still applies to any subcommittees of public bodies, whether they make decisions or only advise.
"Our point is open communication," Hughes said to the board. "Absolutely open communication."
The idea for the group came about after weeks of negotiations -- still unresolved -- about a proper accessible pedestrian path from the potential site of the future parking lot to the commuter rail station.
Private landowner Phil Berry, who owns land right next to the commuter station, caused a stir in April when he erected a fence along the outskirts of his property. The fence directed commuters to walk around the edges of his property, rather than directly through it as they had done.
A portion of the fence was later taken down, but the action sent a message resonating throughout town of the work that still has to be done to build the parking lot.
MART has claimed that Berry's deed requires him to have an easement over the land so that commuters may legally cross the property to reach the station.
The $3.2 million in federal funds for the parking project can also not be accessed until an appropriate path is marked.
But in a presentation to selectmen in May, MART administrator Mohammed Kahn said the landowner was not agreeable to almost all of the path options that MART presented.
Now, both the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the town are awaiting a proposal from Berry on an accessible, agreeable path.
Called repeatedly for a statement since the fence was put up, Berry has refused comment.
In May, a group of residents sent a petition to Massachusetts Department of Transportation head Richard Davey and the MBTA, urging them to "take prompt action" and make Berry comply with deed requirements.
When part of the fence came down a day after the news broke, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email that the town would find a "mutually acceptable solution" within 30 days.
With the 30-day deadline passed, Pesaturo said last week that the matter is complex and will require more time to negotiate a plan acceptable to all parties.
"There is no specific timetable for the execution of a final agreement, but the parties are working diligently to identify a resolution," he said in an email. "In the interim, MBTA customers continue to have unobstructed access to and from the train station."
Selectmen on Tuesday signed off on a letter to MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott that said that the town is concerned that the dispute is already three months old with no anticipated date for the resolution.
Zane said in a phone interview that the issue of a parking lot was brought up in 2004 in a comprehensive town plan.
"And here we are in 2014, 10 years later, and nothing has happened," he said. "So there was a whole lot of dissatisfaction with progress, and then this issue with the fence going up on the property across the street...I think it just set everyone off."
Callahan, a current Planning Board member, was one of many residents who helped collect signatures for the petition. O'Connor is a daily commuter from Ayer who also helped with the petition.
Zane said that the federal earmark Ayer received was actually originally assigned to Littleton, which was unable to move forward with the project.
"In the meantime, Littleton has gotten whatever issue it was straightened out, gotten another grant and actually built a parking facility," he said. "And Ayer is still sitting with this earmark and we don't have the facility yet."
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