UPTON, Mass. - In 2008, while the Great Recession was raging, Jon Delli Priscoli purchased the Grafton and Upton Railroad, a long dormant 15 mile connector that, once spruced, would link to a CSX line that networks as far as St. Louis.
With little growth in highway transportation, he saw a renaissance in freight commerce. Today, he is slowly rejuvenating the line, replacing worn and sunken rails bit by bit. The state, excited by the activity, ponied up $1 million for track repairs. Since rail lines are governed by federal law, the G&U rail has right of way and exempt from town by-laws. However, in an act of transparency, Delli Priscoli reached out to the four towns along the line. His goal, he said in a Grafton Board of Selectmen meeting, is to be a partner in town and create jobs without stimulus money.
Grafton, Milford, and Hopedale have been receptive overall. But in Upton, a series of town hall debates about, among other points, potentially hazardous material at the Upton rail yard, has become so heated Delli Priscoli filed a $20 million defamation lawsuit against a former selectwoman. This was in June. On July 23, a group of abutting neighbors fired back, filing a petition with an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, arguing that the site is operating a wood pellet processing business, which should be regulated by the town.
Grafton & Upton Railroad spokesman Doug Pizzi, said the Upton counsel and the Board of Selectmen, in a town presentation also attended by a representative from the Federal Railroad Administration, surmised that all the activities in the rail yard were preempted from local oversight.
Attorney Mark Bobrowski, representing the seven residents who filed the petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board, disagrees. He said since the pellets are being bagged and loaded on a truck, then it is no longer rail transport and should be regulated by town by-laws.
Bobrowski said the petition will be documented by the STB in the next 30 to 45 days and expect a decision in three to six months.
This petition preempted a public discussion between the Upton Planning Board and the Board of Selectmen, who were also considering filing with the STB.
Prior to this, the town established a railroad fact finding committee to determine if public safety and health concerns exist. Former selectwoman and Upton Board of Health member Marsha Paul has objected so strongly to chemical tankers parked near a water source plus the train noise that impacts the residents quality of life, it led Delli Priscoli to file the $20 million lawsuit against her.
In it, he claims his business reputation is damaged due to Paul’s quotes in the press and that she exploits her former seats with the board of health and selectmen.
The suit was filed by Delli Priscoli without an attorney in Middlesex Superior Court.
Neither Pizzi, the spokesman for the G&U Rail, nor Peter A. Palmer, Paul’s attorney, is commenting about the lawsuit.
In a six page response to the lawsuit, Paul denied any wrongdoing, while her attorney asked the court to dismiss the filing and order Delli Priscoli to pay Paul’s legal bill. They argued that they are protected under a state law known as a SLAPP suit, or strategic litigation against public participation, which are filed to suppress opposition to development proposals.
Regardless of that outcome, Pizzi doesn’t believe the petition to the Surface Transportation Board filed by the rail yard’s neighbors will succeed since federal oversight has already cleared the rail yard’s operation.
“What you have here are people living next to the railroad who don’t like those answers," he said.
Richard Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.