New interest in the 6.2-mile railroad easement between Tuolumne and Standard spurred a heated exchange among Tuolumne Park and Recreation District directors Wednesday.

Directors have said repeatedly that sale of the easement only came up because others approached them about it, but it's a low priority for the district.

Dick Southern, a district director and a member of Friends of Sierra Railroad, said Wednesday he didn't think the matter should be discussed even though people were at the meeting to talk about it since directors have said in prior meetings the easement is a low priority.

"If there are no negotiations going on, I don't think we should be discussing it," Southern said in an elevated tone of voice.

Board Chairman Jon Kellogg listened to Southern's statement, then acknowledged a member of the audience, Leo Gibbons, who started to speak about the issue.

Southern interrupted him, saying: "Again, I don't think we should be discussing this if nothing is happening."

"Are you negotiating or not?" he asked Kellogg pointedly.

"It is not a high priority for this board right now," answered Kellogg, also in a raised voice, "but nobody has ever been refused the right to speak at our meetings, and we will afford these people the chance to speak."

He then asked Southern to remove himself from the discussion because of a conflict of interest his membership in the railroad group and Southern left the room.

"I assure you we are not trying to be evasive," said Kellogg later in the meeting. "We are in the very preliminary steps of negotiating a sale or trade of what we know we own, but I think I can assure you it would not include anything past Ralph's Station (at the corner of Tuolumne and Soulsbyville roads)."

The easement has been a contentious issue since January, when Sierra Railroad owner Mike Hart told directors he was interested in buying the right of way.

The district agreed in 1997 to sell it to Sierra Railroad for $25,000, but that sale fell through when the former West Side Lumber Co. property, through which the track runs, became entangled in lawsuits over a failed housing and golf course development.