GALION — With little on the agenda at last week’s city council meeting, anyone expecting a quick in-and-out was disappointed. Two oft-discussed topics — railroad track blockages and design review — took up about the first 35 minutes of the meeting.
City Council heard from resident Mollie Schmotzer who asked if the city if anything can be done to stem the increasing number of blocked railroad crossings. She said that twice this month — Jan. 14 and Jan. 16 — there was a stopped train at the Portland Way South crossing for at least 90 minutes. She said she mas contacted CSX on many occasions but has never received a reply.
City officials explained it is a federal issue.
Matt Echelberry, who handles communications for the city, said that in the past, many Ohio municipalities fined railroads which blocked crossings longer than 10 minutes under state law. However, in an April, 2017 case: CSX Transportation v. Williams, the court ruled that railroads have jurisdiction at road crossings under the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, setting a precedent that takes away municipalities’ leverage to keep crossings clear.
Galion has experienced significantly more stopped trains in the past few months, prompting city officials and the police and fire chiefs to meet with US Representative Jim Jordan in December about the issue and its impact to safety forces.
Mayor Tom O’Leary recommended that Schmotzer and other residents who are concerned about the issue contact Galion’s representatives in Federal government:
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan can be reached at 202-225-2676 in Washington or at 419-663-1426 in Bucyrus. You can email him at https://jordan.house.gov/contact/
U.S. Senator Rob Portman can be reached in Washington at 202-224-3353 or in Columbus at 614-469-6774 . Email him at https://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact-form
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown can be reached via phone at 202-224-2315 in Washington and in Columbus at 614-469-2083. Email him by following this link: https://www.brown.senate.gov/contact/email
Citizens may also contact the Transportation Division of PUCO and the Ohio Rail Development Commission.
O’Leary and several council members encouraged residents to keep sending emails and making phone calls to all of these Congressmen and state legislators.
O’Leary said there are usually two reasons for the blockages in Galion. CSX swaps train crews near Middletown Road, which blocks crossings from Knorr Road and continuing south. In addition, the railroad tracks merge into one line between Crestline and Shelby, creating a bottleneck that causes northbound trains to back up. South of Galion on Keiffer Roads, the tracks also merge into one, creating a bottleneck for south or westbound trains.
He joked that a part of Jordan’s crew was stopped for a period of time during a recent visit to Galion and that delay might actually accentuate city residents’ qualms.
Also last week, George Sutton, who lives on Harding Way West, expressed his frustration with design review rules and regulations that prohibit the use of vinyl windows.
Sutton said he was acting as a fiduciary for the owner of a home at the corner of Gill Avenue and Harding Way West and the price of windows required by the design review district involved pretty much prohibit the improvements the owner wants to make.
“In 1994, the property sold for $30,000,” Sutton said. “To put in the type of windows that design review requires will cost $20,000. That’s absolutely absurd. I don’t get it. What does it hurt to use vinyl.”
According to the City of Galion website, “Galion’s three Design Review Districts were established by City Council to qualify for Community Development Block Grant monies. The Uptowne Design Review District encompasses most of Galion’s downtown business district on Harding Way, bounded on the north by Church Street, on the east by the railroad tracks, on the south by Walnut Street, and on the west by Union Street. Historic West Main contains properties between Boston Street and Jefferson Street. Harding Way West contains properties from Jefferson Street to the intersection with Portland Way.
“The primary purpose of Design Review is to create a better business environment by disallowing unreasonable development that injures property values of other owners in the district. Specific powers and duties of the Design Review Boards are outlined in Codified Ordinances Chapter 1311.
Residential or commercial building owners of property within the district must acquire prior approval before making improvements, repairs or other changes to the exterior of their buildings. This includes paving, landscaping, signage, window and door replacement and more.”
Sutton said he also was bothered by what he called an inconsistency in the way design review rules are applied.
“Vinyl windows are the big issue,” he said.
But Sutton also said there is inconsistency in the types of windows approved and the time it takes for applications to be approved, based on the applicant.
Council member Shirley Clark said there are changes being made that will “make it easier for repairs.”
City Law Director Thomas Palmer agreed, but he said the process is long and involved.
“I’m not on any of the review boards,” he said. “My job is to enforce the laws in this city as they are written. But I will say that the review boards are looking and working on changes that will address some of these issues. The prohibition has been in place for 20 years. There were reasons they were put in place.
“But I assure you there are 10-20 people who are working to come up with a solution for these problems.”
Palmer could not give Sutton a time table for when the changes will be brought to city council for approval.