Selectboard sidesteps roundabout vote (3/11/10)

Issue rolled into Comprehensive Plan process

March 11, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday diverted the debate over a controversial roundabout to town planners.

Last week, Williston voters overwhelmingly rejected a roundabout at the intersection where U.S. 2 meets North Williston and Oak Hill roads. The non-binding vote was the most lopsided in years, with 82 percent casting ballots against the traffic circle.

The Selectboard agenda this week included a motion to rescind previous support of the roundabout. But instead of voting on the motion, the board decided to have the Planning Commission take up the matter as part of the process of revising Williston’s Comprehensive Plan, said Town Manager Rick McGuire.

He said the board also directed town staff to send a letter to the Vermont Agency of Transportation stating that the board previously voted to recommend a roundabout at the intersection but residents voted against it, so now the matter will be considered as part of the town plan process.

Board members said in interviews Tuesday that last week’s balloting obviously indicated that voters oppose a roundabout, but it did not indicate what they wanted done about the accident-plagued intersection. They hope the Planning Commission, which is currently working on revisions to the Comprehensive Plan, can gather further citizen input and then provide direction.

“The (ballot) question told us not to pursue a roundabout,” board member Chris Roy said. “So we’re not pursuing a roundabout. … For the time being we’re not recommending anything other than the status quo. If we ever recommend anything else, it will be after the town plan rewrite process.”

“We’re in a holding pattern,” Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said. “Let’s listen to what folks say and see what the Planning Commission does.”

Roy and Macaig emphasized that ultimately any town decision is only a recommendation to the state, which they assert ultimately has the final say on what, if any, improvements are made at the intersection. Town and state officials also note that any project would not occur for several years.

The Selectboard’s decision on Monday ensures a yearlong debate will continue. After learning the intersection was placed on a list of the state’s most crash-prone locations and thus was eligible for federally funded improvements, the board in March 2009 chose a roundabout rather than a traffic signal to improve traffic flow and safety. The intersection is now controlled by a four-way stop sign.

Opposition to the roundabout soon emerged. Foes argued that the roundabout was unwanted and unnecessary. They said it would hurt the historic character of the village and negatively impact Williston Federated Church and the Korner Kwik Stop, which both abut the intersection.

A petition aimed at getting the issue on the ballot was circulated. Hundreds signed it, convincing the Selectboard to put the roundabout on the March 2 ballot even though under state statute the result was not binding.

The tally — 370 for the roundabout, 1,651 against — was the most one-sided vote in the past decade, a review of town records shows. The next most decisive vote occurred in 2004, when 73 percent of voters approved the continuation of a 1 percent local sales tax.

“I think everybody realizes that voters sent a clear message that they didn’t want the roundabout,” Macaig said.

The Planning Commission is at the beginning stages of revising the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, which under state law must be updated every five years.

The current plan acknowledges problems at the intersection but does not specify a solution beyond saying, “A roundabout or a signal will soon be needed.”

“Whatever improvements are made should be consistent with the historic character of Williston Village,” the plan states.

The commission will work on the Comprehensive Plan revision throughout this year, and its work could be completed by early 2011.

“We’re happy to let that process go and let folks other than the Selectboard become painfully familiar with roundabouts,” Roy said with a chuckle.