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Published February 11. 2022 5:05PM | Updated February 12. 2022 10:07PM
East Lyme — Amtrak's planned replacement of a stretch of chain-link fence along Main Street is raising alarm bells among residents who fear the popular spot's signature views will be obstructed.
A photo provided to First Selectman Kevin Seery and public works Deputy Director Bill Scheer by the railroad company shows Amtrak plans to use an 8-foot-tall, black metal fence with thick, narrowly spaced pickets that curve at the top.
Seery and Main Street merchants who have reached out to him expressed concerns about the same type of fence showing up recently along a nature preserve in Stonington.
A senior manager in the railroad company's government affairs division said in an email accompanying the photo that the metal fencing is the company's standard for deterring trespassers and mitigating the risk of fatalities.
Seery reached out last Friday for more information, according to an email chain he provided to The Day. His specific questions were not answered but he was told corporate security is looking into "other potential options."
Sue Kumro, vice president of the nonprofit Niantic Main Street group, owns a liquor store across from the train tracks overlooking the bay.
"I love looking out my window here and seeing the Coast Guard and the boats," she said. With a wry reference to the region's nuclear power facility, she added "and Millstone."
She said the fear is that the fencing will not only obstruct her view, but that of other businesses, residences and especially cars driving by.
"People love to see the ocean," she said. "Let's be serious."
Jim Stewart, owner of the Main Street-based Stewart's Music for 27 years, said the proposed fence will "destroy the aesthetics" of the bay and its boardwalk. He said he believes Niantic boasts the longest stretch of Main Street with a water view on the Eastern Seaboard.
"It would be a shame to obstruct that view," he said.
The majority of the fencing currently consists of 7-foot-tall, chain link without a top rail, according to Seery. He said he found out it was going to be replaced by Amtrak when surveyors were spotted in town by Scheer.
Seery recalled when the town successfully lobbied Amtrak to alter a 2009 plan along the railroad company's section of the boardwalk. The tight, 1-inch mesh fabric proposed at the time would have stood 8 feet tall and curved toward the boardwalk. Instead, the company agreed to aluminum fencing of the same height but with thin pickets to help preserve the view.
Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said the proposed project will improve the safety and security of the line and protect Amtrak customers, employees and the general public.
"Railroad property is private property and it is against the law and considered trespassing to enter onto railroad property at locations that are not public access areas without proper permission," Abrams said. "Not only (is it) illegal, but it creates a serious safety hazard to the public, train operations, and the passengers and employees on board the train."
He did not disclose additional details about the fencing or its cost.
East Lyme police Chief Mike Finkelstein said officers responded to two calls in 2021 and two in 2020 for reports of trespassing on the track. When such reports are substantiated, he said local officers bring in the Amtrak Police Department to make contact and decide on any charges.
Stewart, the Main Street businessman, recalled the 1979 made-for-TV movie "Disaster on the Coastliner" was filmed in Niantic. "The reason they chose this town to film that whole thing in was because of the stretch of train tracks with the water view," he said.
The Day archives reveals the movie debuted on ABC in 1979 with Lloyd Bridges and William Shatner among its stars. The plot involves a disgruntled railroad employee who tampers with the computer-guided equipment in an effort to run two passenger trains into each other.
Although the movie is set in California, "Disaster on the Coastliner" was filmed in southeastern Connecticut. In one prominent shot, two helicopters follow the runaway locomotive as it barrels down the railroad track along Niantic Bay, with Main Street figuring prominently in the shot. Shatner reportedly did his own stunts for this scene, which involved climbing atop the train.
Stewart said the bars of the metal pickets will "make a mess" of the view that's been preserved until now through the wire mesh. "With the style of fence that's here now, which is chain link, you can see straight out, you can look to the left, look to the right and nothing's obstructed," he said.
Included in the area of Amtrak's planned replacement is a section installed by the town when it turned the former Mobil gas station site into a park back in 2018.
Kumro said officials gave "a lot of consideration" to the type of fence they used to preserve the expansive bay view that greets visitors as they enter Main Street from Pennsylvania Avenue. "We have a black, chain-link fence. It's great. You can see right through it," she said.
One of Seery's questions for the train company revolves around whether or not the Main Street Park area is included in the replacement project.
Both Kumro and Stewart referenced the importance of being proactive in making the town's concerns known to Amtrak. Kumro said there has been talk on Main Street about starting a petition to convince the railroad company to go with chain-link fencing.
"Because once they start," she said, "we're never going to be able to stop them."
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