Circ route shifted to avoid wetlands (12/3/09)

Proposal still awaits federal approval

Dec. 3, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

If at first you don’t succeed, detour around the problem.


    Source: Vermont Agency of Transportation
This map produced in 2003 shows the proposed route of the Circumferential Highway. Now a new route designed to minimize environmental impacts shifts the alignment slightly eastward near where the Circ would cross Mountain View Road in Williston.

That might by the motto for officials seeking a permit for the long-delayed Williston leg of the Circumferential Highway. They have now shifted the original route eastward in an effort to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and satisfy federal regulators.

At issue are the wetlands along the Williston segment, which would run from Interstate 89 to the existing Circ in Essex. It remains to be seen whether the project can meet Clean Water Act requirements.

The Army Corps of Engineers has for more than a year met with state and federal officials to discuss the highway but has yet to rule on the required permit.

“This is a complex project and there are a lot of different factors that need to be considered,” said Jennifer McCarthy, chief of the regulatory division at the Army Corps’ New England regional office. “I can tell you we haven’t been sitting on it or doing anything to hold it up in any way.”

Environmental groups have long fought the highway, and state officials have said they are certain the groups will appeal any permitting decision.

McCarthy acknowledged that legal concerns are one reason the review process is taking so long. She said it is essential to produce a careful, well-reasoned decision that is as “defensible as possible.”

The Circumferential Highway, first proposed decades ago, is a 16-mile suburban bypass running from Williston to Colchester. Only the middle portion in Essex has been constructed.

Plans for the Williston segment call for a four-lane highway beginning at I-89 and crossing U.S. 2 about a mile east of Taft Corners. It would then continue north, squeezing between the Brennan Woods subdivision and the Catamount Golf Club, crossing Mountain View Road and passing over the Winooski River before connecting to the existing Circ at Vermont 117.

The route, called the A/B alignment, was recommended by the Federal Highway Administration in July 2008 after a lengthy study of dozens of alternatives. Among them was a plan to widen Vermont 2A rather than build a new highway.

Though state and federal officials have concluded that the A/B alignment is the only practical option and the one that best improves traffic flow, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to use the 2A alternative to compare environmental impacts. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires permitted projects to meet a standard called LEDPA, short for “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”

Estimates vary, but roughly 30 to 40 acres of wetland would be directly impacted by the A/B alignment; the 2A option only affects two acres.

Ken Robie, project manager with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the state has over the past year tried to reroute the highway around wetlands. Various designs were tried before the state settled on moving the highway about 200 feet to the east.

One of the routes considered but rejected would have bisected Catamount Golf Club, eliminating wetland impacts entirely. Robie said that route was deemed impractical. The proposal now being considered uses a small slice of Catamount land.

“Basically, we have tried to make the new alignment hug as tight as possible to our property lines,” Robie said.

Alex Kourebanas, owner of Catamount Golf Club, said he has mixed feelings about having the highway as a neighbor. But he remains open to the idea of selling a small piece of his property.

On one hand, the noise and appearance will intrude on his business’s pastoral setting, Kourebanas said. But he also believes the Circ is needed to reduce traffic congestion. And it might attract new customers by increasing the golf course’s visibility.

“The bottom line is I’m willing to listen to their proposals,” he said.

The new route reduces the wetland impact by at least 10 acres, Robie said. State officials are also looking to purchase land elsewhere that would replace the wetland that is lost when the highway is built.

Federal regulators point out that impact is still far greater than the Route 2A alternative. Under the Clean Water Act, extensive documentation is needed to prove that the A/B alignment is the only practical option.

State and federal highway officials assert that the 2A alternative is anything but practical. Robie said opposition from Essex Junction, which controls the stretch of 2A that runs through the village, effectively makes that option impossible to build. Dozens of property owners in Williston would likely object to having a part of their property used to widen 2A.

Matt Schweisberg, who heads the wetland program for the EPA’s New England regional office in Boston, said state highway officials have yet to complete documentation required to prove their case and detail wetland mitigation efforts. But he emphasized that the Vermont Agency of Transportation has worked hard to complete the complex and lengthy permitting process.

Marty Abair, senior project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Essex, said it is not unusual for it to take years for a new highway to receive the required permits.

Schweisberg said he understands that residents, weary of waiting in traffic and sick of hearing about a highway that never seems to get built, might wonder why it takes their government so long to issue a permit.

“I’m not sure anyone has a great answer other than a bureaucratic one: We have to meet the legal requirements,” he said.