Board sticks with roundabout ruling (6/4/09)

New zoning also approved at session

June 4, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi choked back tears as she described what can happen when government fails to promptly fix unsafe roads.

Sassorossi said during Monday’s board meeting that her niece was killed in 2006 in a head-on collision with a truck that crossed the centerline on a sweeping corner in New Hampshire. A few months later, the state installed rumble strips at the location.

In a quavering voice, Sassorossi said she wanted to avoid a similar tragedy at the intersection where U.S. 2 meets North Williston and Oak Hill roads.

“I know everyone has said there has been no accident of any great magnitude — yet,” Sassorossi said.

While acknowledging a planned roundabout at the intersection will be expensive, she would “gladly pay a million dollars” to have her niece back.

The Selectboard’s decision to install a roundabout at an intersection ranked among the most dangerous in the state and thus eligible for federally funded improvements has provoked a firestorm of criticism. But the board nonetheless on Monday voted to affirm its decision.

In the two months since the board chose a roundabout over a traffic signal, hundreds of residents signed a petition opposing the decision and scores attended previous public meetings on the subject.

Town Manager Rick McGuire outlined three options for responding to the petition: Rescind the roundabout decision, work with opponents to draft another petition that would trigger a town-wide vote, or take no action. Board members then each outlined their positions.

Jeff Fehrs said he was unsure whether to be swayed by public opinion or to lead by exercising independent judgment. Ted Kenney said he would side with the public and support a motion to rescind the decision, despite still believing that a roundabout is probably the best solution.

Chris Roy said he concluded that a roundabout was the right choice after listening to both residents and traffic experts.

Sassorossi said she didn’t want to be responsible for someone getting hurt at the intersection. She said objective data clearly indicated a roundabout was the best way to ensure safety.

Chairman Terry Macaig said something had to be done, but he wondered if residents would oppose the other option.

“If we rescind this vote and make a decision to go with a traffic light, are we back in the same situation when people say they don’t want a traffic light either?” he said.

The 10 residents who attended the hour-long hearing voiced objections to the roundabout ranging from pedestrian safety to speeding motorists.

Ginger Isham, whose husband’s family has lived in Williston for generations, said though roundabouts are increasingly popular around the country, they don’t necessarily ensure safety or reduce congestion. Isham writes the “Recipe Corner” column in the Observer.

“This is the fad right now. What’s going to happen in 10 years?” she said. “There’s certain places that are taking their roundabouts out, or so I’ve been told.”

Resident Ken Stone wondered if the town had considered reducing the 35 mph speed limit through the village to increase safety at the intersection. Kenney said the town had little jurisdiction in the matter, noting that U.S. 2 is a state-controlled road.

In a splintered decision, the board rejected a motion to rescind its choice of a roundabout.

Sassorossi and Roy opposed the motion. Fehrs also voted no, but said he would be willing to reconsider at a future date. Macaig and Roy voted to approve the motion.

But that may not be the last word on the controversy. Board members agreed to further explore intersection improvements and the speed limit on U.S. 2. And Roy noted that opponents could still draft a new petition specifically calling for a town-wide vote on the roundabout.

In an interview, Town Clerk Deb Becket confirmed that the petition does prompt a referendum because it fails to specifically request a vote. The 759 verified signatures would otherwise far exceed the threshold of 5 percent of registered voters needed under state law to trigger a special ballot.


Board finally approves new zoning

The Selectboard on Monday OK’d new zoning bylaws despite worries that the rules could stymie affordable housing.

The 320-page unified development bylaw won unanimous approval, though some board members said they were only voting yes to move things along after months of debate.

Chris Roy warned that the new bylaws, which tighten rules meant to protect the environment, could prevent construction of mid-priced homes.

Planning Commission Chairman David Yandell said too much focus has been placed on a controversial provision that omits wetlands when calculating allowable density. He said by increasing permitted density around Taft Corners and other areas, the bylaws actually encourage affordable housing.

The Selectboard’s vote ends a three-year process of revising Williston’s outdated zoning and development bylaws. The Selectboard had twice sent the bylaws back to the Planning Commission for revisions before Monday’s final approval.

— Greg Elias, Observer staff