November 28, 2021

Officials scold Cortlandville over removal of McLean tracks

S.N. Briere/ staff reporter

An RV is driven across what was the railroad tracks on McLean Road in Cortlandville. County Highway Superintendent Charlie Sudbrink said that the Cortlandville highway department paved over the tracks, which lie on a county-owned road, without the county’s permission.

Cortland County officials were dismayed after the Cortlandville Highway Department removed railroad tracks on McLean Road near Gutchess Lumber without permission from the county.

“I’m a little disappointed myself,” Charlie Sudbrink, the county highway superintendent, said Tuesday during a Highway and Solid Waste Committee meeting.

Sudbrink said he discovered the tracks were being removed after noticing the road was closed Monday while leaving a property on Fairview Road.

“I drove down there and there was the town of Cortlandville having our county road closed, ripping the railroad tracks out right by Gutchess Lumber,” he said.

Sudbrink said the town then repaved the area. He said it was because the town had been “getting pressure from some individual or individuals” who Glenn Bassett, the Cortlandville highway superintendent, wouldn’t name.

The removal of the tracks raises several concerns though.

Sudbrink said one big issue that arises from the removal is that the New York Susquehanna and Western Railroad, which owns the tracks, told him in the past that if the tracks were ever removed but then were needed by Gutchess Lumber in the future, the county would be liable for replacing the crossing to the new standards for the rail industry.

“You’re talking a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Sudbrink said.

This is not the first time removing the tracks had come up, either — Sudbrink said the Cortlandville Highway department wanted the tracks out last year, or to have the county pave 300 feet to reduce the bump the tracks created.

“I told him the highway department is definitely not spending that kind of money to avoid a bump,” Sudbrink said.

The other issue is that Gutchess last summer expressed an interest in keeping the tracks because they made drivers slow down, lessening the likelihood of an accident in the area, especially since Gutchess employees transport materials back and forth across the road. The company said that although the tracks haven’t been used in years, there is always a possibility it would use them again, but not in the foreseeable future as of now.

“We would support a review of the current McLean Road signage and posted speed limits in this area to add to roadway safety and alert drivers to trucks and forklifts entering and exiting our facility,” said Jeffrey Breed, a spokesperson for the company.

Former Legislature Chairman Kevin Whitney, who had initiated that conversation in June 2019, said after hearing Gutchess’ concerns he dropped the idea of removing the tracks entirely.

“I understood his concern,” he said. “It seemed appropriate. I, at that point, never gave any directive to do anything different.”

Sudbrink said the letter from Gutchess was also discussed with Bassett.

“He didn’t like it but he accepted it,” Sudbrink said.

That was until Monday.

Sudbrink said he confronted Bassett about the issue Monday and Bassett said he got an email from Dan Petrella, the regional rail coordinator with the state Department of Transportation for the county, who stated the county was OK with removing the tracks.

Sudbrink said he spoke to Petrella and that what Bassett had said wasn’t true.

“He (Petrella) did talk to Mr. Bassett about how to procedurally remove tracks and what you would have to do,” Sudbrink said. “He said he never once told him that the county was on board and that it was OK to shut a road down.”

Sudbrink said the situation didn’t sit right with him because the towns have always had open communication with the county and “for them not to let us know, I knew they were doing something shady.”

Sudbrink said he asked for the email between Bassett and Petrella to be emailed to him. By 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sudbrink said he still hadn’t received it.

The state DOT regional office did not reply for comment by deadline.

Sudbrink also said Bassett said he had minutes from a Cortlandville town board meeting when the board told him to remove the tracks.

Bassett could not be reached for comment.

“To be very honest with you, I know very little,” said Tom Williams, the town supervisor. “I am collecting documents. I am asking questions.”

Williams said that something may have been approved or at least discussed in the past administration or that something may have been mentioned in passing as “a point of information that this was something that was going to be done this year.”

Williams said he would provide more information once he had it. He did not respond to further comment before deadline.

Sudbrink said he believes the move by the highway department was political and over pressure to ease the bump the tracks caused when driving over the area.

“This is not OK on so many levels,” Sudbrink said. “Even on a professional courtesy level it’s ridiculously inappropriate.”

Legislator Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil) said she’s heard of several speed issues in that area over the years.

“So it’s not just Gutchess that would like a little speed bump there, I’m sure other people on that road did too,” she said.

Sudbrink said he is now thinking about putting speed bumps with posted signage in the area the tracks were.

Legislator Ron Van Dee (D-Cortland) said Cortlandville should have to put the tracks back in. Van Dee also asked whether the rail company could do something legally to the town for removing the tracks.

Sudbrink said he’s tried to contact the rail system and hasn’t heard back.

“There is the possibility they gave Cortlandville permission with our consent and the understanding that they would have to pay for it, but the county was never informed of any of this,” he said.

Rail system President Nathan Fenno declined to comment Wednesday morning.

Van Dee also said the parties involved should come before the Legislature to discuss the issue. He went as far as making a statement by motioning to have Cortlandville pay for the replacement of the tracks. The committee voted 5-1 on the motion, with Legislator Eugene Waldbauer (R-Cortlandville) voting no and the committee only being made of six members currently.

Price said if they don’t address the issue, then others may take it as an opportunity to do similar things.

Sudbrink said he wants the county attorney to look into the county highway laws to see if any laws were broken.

Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (RCuyler, Solon, Truxton) said he is trying to schedule a closed-door meeting with all parties involved for next week.

“I expect this to be resolved between Cortlandville and Cortland County in a professional manner in which we conduct business,” he said.