Plan for mini railroad back on track in Greenport

A plan to resurrect a miniature railroad in Greenport cleared its final hurdle last week as the state Department of Environmental Conservation approved a wetlands permit for the project.

“After three and a half years and a lot of work on everybody’s part, it’s going to become a reality,” village Mayor George Hubbard Jr. announced at a meeting last Thursday. “That’s really exciting news for the whole community.”

Together with the Greenport Rotary and the Railroad Museum of Long Island, the village purchased a mini-locomotive, three passenger cars and about 1,500 feet of track from Greenport resident Frank Field and plans to operate a miniature railroad in a section of Moore’s Woods. 

Mr. Field, who passed away in February from complications of COVID-19, ran the miniature train on his own property on Sundays and holidays from 1985 until 2012.

Richard Israel, who chairs the train committee for the Greenport Rotary, said in an interview Friday that he’s “ecstatic” about the approval.

“We’re so happy we’re at this point,” he said. “It’s such a tradition in our village. It’s part of our heritage that Frank created and it shouldn’t stop. Years have gone by, but everybody in the community is still behind this.” 

Rotarians and community members gathered in 2019 for a ceremonial unveiling of the Greenport Express — which has already been nicknamed the “Joe Cherry Choo Choo” in honor of the late Joe Cherepowich, who many have credited as the driving force behind the project.

Plans for the railroad faced delays and opposition at the state level as the DEC raised concerns over its proximity to wetlands. In a letter from early 2020, state officials also cited comments received from citizens who oppose the project based on its potential impacts on the relatively undisturbed portion of Moore’s Woods and noted that the permit would be issued only if proponents could determine the project “satisfies a compelling economic or social need that outweighs the loss and detriment of the freshwater wetlands adjacent area.”

Several environmental advocates attended last Thursday’s meeting to voice their opposition to the location of the mini railroad.

“We’re all flabbergasted that the DEC gave permits to go in the wetlands, where the rare plants are,” said Mary Laura Lamont of Riverhead, who chairs the educational committee of the Long Island Botanical Society. “I’m here to beg for the life of this unique, beautiful ecosystem,” she said, which is home to rare plant species.

While they aren’t opposed to resurrecting the railroad, Ms. Lamont and several other speakers urged the board to consider alternative locations.

“To put it in Moore’s Woods — no matter what size, no matter where it is — is the beginning of a degradation and an impairment of the entire area,” said John Potente, a Nassau County resident who also works with the botanical society.

Louise Harrison, a conservation biologist who lives in Peconic, said the railroad doesn’t belong in Moore’s Woods, which she described as a source of wonder and exploration for children.

“I don’t want [children] to grow up to be callous about the natural environment and think that it’s a place to make loud noises and race through. We need to foster and engender a sense of wonder and love for our environment because it’s not just here in Greenport; our environment is threatened globally,” Ms. Harrison said.

All who spoke said the village, Rotary and railroad museum should work together with environmental groups to either find a more suitable location or help reinvigorate the nearly 200-acre wooded area.

“It’s kind of a mess back there and it needs some help. But to pave paradise and cement it over … that’s not a solution,” said Peggy Lauber, president of the North Fork Audubon Society.

She and the other speakers suggested the parties collaborate on a way to site the train to make children more aware of the beauty and significance of Moore’s Woods.

“You have the permit, but you also have us and our expertise,” Ms. Harrison said.

Addressing the group at last Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Hubbard said that disturbance to the woodlands would be minimal. “We’re not going deep in the woods. It’s right on the edge of the woods and over half the railroad is on clear-cut land that’s already there,” he said.

Mr. Israel said he’s sensitive to the environmental concerns and noted that the DEC’s review was extensive. During the environmental review, he said, the plans and layout of the track changed four times and, according to the latest design, which was ultimately approved by the DEC, the track would enter the woods by approximately 500 feet and require the clearing of just six trees — far fewer than the initially planned 100 trees.

While the Rotary had considered other locations, officials ultimately selected a site near the existing ballfields and skatepark in order to eventually create public bathrooms that officials say are sorely needed in the area. 

Mr. Israel said he envisions adding educational components to the attraction that could teach riders about the woods. “We’re hoping it can be interactive to teach kids about the wetlands,” he said. Inside the “train station,” Mr. Israel would also like to include information on the area’s natural history. “It would allow people to understand Moore’s Woods and what’s special about it,” he said.

A fundraising effort for the project is ongoing and the Rotary has raised approximately $150,000 to date. Both the Long Island Railroad Museum and Riverhead Brake Services have pitched in to help renovate the electric trains.

With the project cleared to move forward, Mr. Israel said they’re gearing up to start construction this summer and would love to welcome children aboard the train by Halloween — a beloved tradition in its heyday. “We don’t want to lose this tradition,” he said.

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