AYER — The attorney for landowner Phil Berry says he’s waiting on a response to two of Berry’s proposed pedestrian pathways to the Ayer commuter station.
The issue heated up last week as residents mailed over 100 postcards to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
The Ayer Rail Train Station Advisory Committee, tasked with working to help resolve the problem of access to the rail station over Berry’s property, collected signatures on postcards that urged MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott to find a solution by Labor Day.
Without agreeable access, the plan to expand the current Ayer commuter parking lot near Main Street is on hold. The project, which would involve purchasing parcels on Park Street, received $3.2 million in federal funds in 2012 — money that cannot be accessed until officials identify a pedestrian way.
The slow pace of the project was brought to public attention in April, when Berry erected a fence along the outer edges of his property, blocking direct access. A portion of the fence later came down, and the MBTA set about finding a resolution within 30 days.
More than two months later, there has been no progress.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email that the property owner has been “less than cooperative with the MBTA,” and the MBTA has asked local legislators for assistance.
“Like the customers who use the train station, we are frustrated by the property owner’s unwillingness to work with the MBTA to develop a resolution,” he said.
Berry has not returned requests for comment since April, but his lawyer, Roy Pastor, said he has submitted two proposals. Pastor said Berry has been trying to get the town and the railway to talk to him about an access path for a good 10 years.
Because this has become a political issue, Pastor said, he submitted the proposals through state Rep. Sheila Harrington’s office.
“He’s been trying not to get involved in the politics of this thing, but, unfortunately, there seems to be agendas all over the place,” Pastor said.
Pastor said the MBTA is “deathly afraid” of triggering a review for compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act — a move that could cost more money.
“They don’t want to spend the money to make it handicapped-accessible according to the new guidelines,” he said.
But Pesaturo said in an email that the matter is about access to and from the station.
“The property owner and his attorney are attempting to distract you from the real issue,” he said. “This matter has nothing to do with upgrading the station.”
The Montachusett Regional Transit Authority, which is working on the parking project, has claimed Berry’s deed to the property requires him to have a public right-of-way and a passenger building.
But Pastor argued that the railway abandoned that building decades ago. Additionally, he said, the laws regarding covenants changed in 1961 and at this point someone would have to fashion an agreement that would be consistent with the original one.
“Even if all of that happened, by its own terms, there’s 45 years left on the life of those things,” he said of the access way and the building.
Both of Berry’s offers, Pastor said, would be permanent. One would require knocking down part of a building Berry owns on Main Street to create a path in between two buildings across the street from Town Hall. The path takes a direct right turn behind Berry’s line of properties on Main Street, running parallel to the tracks until it hits the commuter station.
The second proposal is to create a 24-foot driveway directly across from the commuter parking lot with a 10-foot pedestrian access path. The driveway would lead to a turnaround drop-off area that Pastor said would be big enough to fit emergency vehicles.
Berry would sell that whole area — to the right of the Advocates building — for $1.
“The frustration that my client has had is that the negotiations have nothing to do with common sense or what’s good for the town or what’s good for the commuter,” Pastor said. “Everything is focused on avoiding a compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — because of that it’s very difficult to reach something that’s rational because that’s the one and only focus that they have right now.”
Pastor also said he hasn’t been invited to any of the town meetings or meetings with state Sen. Jamie Eldridge on the matter.
“The only involvement we had with Eldridge was a phone call a couple of days ago,” Pastor said. “That’s why I’m surprised that he had made so many statements to the press, because he had never made any attempt to talk with us before.”
But Pesaturo said the property owner and his attorney have refused to respond to the MBTA’s requests for negotiations.
In a phone call on Wednesday, Eldridge said he is working on planning a meeting with both parties sometime in August.
“Now that I’ve spoken to both parties and it’s clear that they haven’t met, and there hasn’t been a real negotiation, now I will do the outreach to see if we can have that meeting,” he said.
Eldridge said state representatives Sheila Harrington, R-Groton, and Jennifer Benson, D-Lunenburg, are also working on the outreach.
“I share the frustration that residents in Ayer and municipal officials have that there has not yet been a meeting between the property owner and the MBTA, because that’s the only way we move forward,” he said.
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