LACONIA — Facing a standing-room-only crowd, the city council voted 5-1 Monday to delay action on a resolution in support of a Lakes Region recreational trail extension in the existing state-owned railroad corridor.
The resolution says the council endorses efforts that could lead to the removal of existing state-owned railroad tracks between Northfield and Weirs Beach stations and that city leaders pledge to “work cooperatively with representatives of neighboring communities to study what actions may be necessary to gain state and federal approval for the rail-to-trail project.”
In August, the council agreed to commission a study to examine the pros and cons of extending the Winnisquam-Opechee-Winnipesaukee (WOW) Trail next to, or in place of, the railroad tracks that follow the shoreline of Paugus Bay.
According to the study by Alta Planning + Design of Cambridge, Mass., the 2.5-mile trail, which proponents want to extend another four miles into Weirs Beach, would generate over $6 million annually in visitor spending.
But Benjamin Clark, president of the Hobo and Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad, cited a recent study by Stone Consulting Inc. of Warren, Pa., reporting the railroad makes more than $17.4 million in economic impact annually, and that 380 full-time jobs have been created as a result of railroad operations in the region.
Incoming Mayor Andrew Hosmer made a motion to hold off on the rail-to-trail proposal until councilors receive a copy of the report, and councilors voted in favor.
David Swirk who owns and operates the Conway Scenic Railroad, likened ripping up the tracks to removing the iconic excursion vessel Mt. Washington from Lake Winnipesaukee. Were the ship dry-docked during the summer, people could still tour the lake with their own kayak or canoe.
“But there is no economic incentive to anybody, they’re just doing this on their own,” Swirk said.
Dick Bordwell, president of the Long Bay homeowner’s association, also opposes the plan.
“The perception in this room is probably that Long Bay and South Down are against the WOW Trail,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that’s not the case. We are against the current proposed location for the WOW Trail and our sole reason for that is safety.”