No, it’s really not “your town”

The good people of Shelburne are in a tizzy because their blessed gemeinschaft might be tainted by the slightest hint of industrialization. The Burlington Free Press, which pays no mind to antiwar protests but is always anxious to report the plight of affluent subscribers:

Protesters against a project that would place a salt transfer and storage facility near the LaPlatte River in Shelburne donned rain gear and gathered at the Shelburne Community School on Sunday afternoon to make their voices heard.

Horrors!

You know, I have a lot of trouble ginning up outrage on behalf of comfortable, affluent white folks, which is basically the population of Shelburne. (Lookin’ at you, Bruce Lisman!) Especially when I read the overwrought rhetoric of Selectboard chair Gary von Stange:

“This is our town,” von Stange said. “This is our state. These are our lives and our children. This is our community. Champlain is our lake. The LaPlatte is our river. We not only have the right, we have the obligation to fight for our children and our children’s children. There is no compromising when it comes to safety.”

Oh, for God’s sake. Our lives? Our children? Our lake? Our river? All under threat because of a facility that will be invisible and almost inaudible? When its operator promises to abide by strict environmental standards?

This is the kind of apocalyptic verbiage that gives environmentalism a bad name. Do we really have to fight every development as if it will somehow transform Vermont into a Mad Max hellscape?

But that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is that railways enjoy the most all-encompassing, ironclad property rights of just about any entity you can think of.

Railroad law was written in the days of the robber barons, when the buildout of America’s rail system was widely accepted as a public good. And when said robber barons generously dispensed favors to cooperative politicians.

Residents of Montpelier discovered this a few years back, when Rock of Ages wanted to use an out-of-service rail line to transport granite from Barre to Montpelier Junction. There was a predictable outburst of consternation; after all, the line ran right through downtown Montpelier. How could the city survive the onslaught?

Turned out, there was absolutely nothing the townsfolk could do because railroad rights-of-way are practically sacred. Railroads have very wide latitude to do what they want, because that’s the way the law works. The trains run occasionally through Montpelier. Very slowly, absolutely no threat to safety unless you’re a real idiot. I think the sound of the train adds a touch of urban verisimilitude to the cityscape.

Here’s another case, also in Montpelier. A planned bike/pedestrian pathway linking Montpelier and Barre has been hung up for years, partly because of a railroad right-of-way. Mind you, there is no rail line on the property; it was removed decades ago. But the right-of-way is still legally the railroad’s. It has proved almost impossible to overcome such a seemingly trivial hurdle.

Meanwhile, back in Shelburne, the railroad is eager to meet the town halfway, which is more than it legally needs to do. Not good enough for the angry Shelburnians; they want Vermont Rail to give up its legal rights and voluntarily go through the town planning and Act 250 processes.

The town would be well advised to take what it can get. Stated plainly, it doesn’t have a case. You can argue that federal law is overly deferential to railroads, but that doesn’t change the law.

And I don’t believe the facility will have the slightest impact on Shelburne. Its comfy, upper-class simulacrum of small town life will be unimpeded. Lake Champlain will suffer far more from the sewage dumped into it by area residents than from this single facility. Get a grip, Shelburne. Get over yourselves.

 

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