Throughout the holiday week, YourObserver.com will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2011 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers and the Pelican Press. Check back each day for a reprinting — along with any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 7, 2011
About three weeks ago, residents in the Alta Vista and Gardens of Ringling Park communities watched as some new neighbors moved into the area — about two-dozen, graffiti-covered railroad boxcars.
On the railroad tracks between South Pelican Drive and Novus Street, the boxcars sit about 20 feet from Shade Avenue.
Residents fear the curiosity and temptation to take an up-close look will be too much for many kids in the community.
“I fear that friends could close a kid in there, and they won’t be able to get out,” said Pat Kolodgy, an Alta Vista resident.
On April 1, residents reported seeing two teenage girls park their car next to the train and get out to get a closer look.
They walked along the boxcars and, along the way, they looked inside the open boxcars, which house signs that people are using them as living quarters (see below).
Residents have been asking the City Commission and city staff members to get the railroad to move the boxcars, but there’s little local government can do.
The Seminole Gulf Railway and CSX share ownership of the rail line. Seminole Gulf owns the tracks and equipment, and CSX owns the land on which the tracks sit.
Federal law gives the railroads freedom to use its property at will.
Harry Neeves, Seminole Gulf Railway vice president, said his company is currently using the tracks between the two neighborhoods as a storage area.
“They won’t be staying there,” he said of the boxcars.
The boxcars will eventually move out to the national rail system through Oneco, but Neeves is not sure exactly when that will happen.
On March 30, he wrote to the city’s Neighborhood and Development director, Tim Litchet, telling him the railcars would be moved in a couple of weeks.
Commissioner Suzanne Atwell is as concerned about safety as are the nearby residents.
“The open boxcars are a destination for someone who wants to hide for a while,” she said. “It’s just inviting vagrants.”
According to Neeves, the railroad has its own police force that patrols the areas in which it stores its cars. Its officers will first warn trespassers to leave the property, but they also have arrest power.
Instead of only asking local officials to do something about the railcars, some residents are appealing directly to Seminole Gulf Railway officials.
Kolodgy has written directly to Neeves to ask him to move the railcars as soon as possible.
“These hazardous boxcars are like magnets to curious children, adventuresome teens and the homeless already in that area looking for a dry ‘home,’” she wrote.
Neeves, however, was unmoved.
“We have the right to move and store freight cars on our property as we see fit,” he said. “The railroad has been in place long before the homes in the surrounding community have.”
Palmer Ranch residents have been battling Seminole Gulf Railway for nearly a decade.
A varying number of empty boxcars has been behind the Arielle condo complex since 2003.
The railcars sit less than 50 feet behind the condo buildings.
Dozens of boxcars have been shuttled back and forth on the tracks behind Arielle and Prestancia for years, even before those communities existed.
Some residents said before they bought their condos that Realtors told them the cars would be moved soon.
Harry Neeves, Seminole Gulf Railway vice president, said he’s heard that story many times.
“Some unscrupulous Realtors told buyers that the railcars would be gone soon,” says Neeves. “That’s a storage area for us. It could be a storage area forever.”
UPDATE: The boxcars are still sitting in the same location today.
Inside a boxcar
About 20 feet from Shade Avenue, between Novus Street and South Pelican Drive, begins a long line of boxcars.
The fourth one down from the roadway has its door placed inside the car, exposing the interior.
Inside are obvious signs that the boxcar has been used as temporary living quarters.
Pillows and blankets indicate someone has slept there, and discarded jeans, shirts and shoes are also scattered throughout, as are soda and water bottles.