Reluctant residents stall sidewalk projects

Some don’t want super-sized paths in their yards

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

In 2004, Williston voters resoundingly approved a $2.6 million bond to pay for new sidewalks. The bond, passed by nearly a 2-1 margin, was supposed to speed construction, allowing the sidewalks to be finished within three to five years instead of decades.

But now, more than three years later, only a piece of one sidewalk has been completed. The delay is mainly due to residents’ reluctance to allow the walks to run through their front yards.

“We’ve got right of way issues with every sidewalk in town,” said Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden. “We’ve come up against a fair amount of resistance in some areas.”

In at least one case, there has been barely any progress at all. On Mountain View Road, just two of roughly 43 property owners have granted easements for a sidewalk, Boyden said.

It’s not that the town hasn’t tried. Boyden said every single property owner along each sidewalk route has been contacted, some repeatedly.

In addition to Mountain View Road, sidewalks are planned on U.S. Route 2, on Vermont Route 2A, near the Meadow Run subdivision and on North Williston Road. Only a portion of the Route 2 sidewalk has actually been constructed.

North Williston Road residents have said they want the sidewalk, which would run between Route 2 and Mountain View Road. They noted traffic has greatly increased along their road in recent years, and a sidewalk would ensure pedestrian safety.

But plans for that stretch and the others call for a larger recreation path, which will cut roughly a 20-foot-wide swath through yards. The path itself would be about 10 feet wide and require about twice that much space when buffers are included, Boyden said.

A standard sidewalk is about 6 feet wide, and with the buffer requires an easement of about 10 feet.

The width of easements needed to construct sidewalks varies from one part of Williston to another. It depends on topography and the width of the existing public right of way along each road.

The North Williston Road path would run through Kerstin Hanson’s property. She said many of her neighbors have small front yards to start with, so a wide path would have a dramatic impact.

“For some people, you’d have the path running up to their front doorstep,” she said. “We want this, we just don’t want it to take over our property.”

Jim Chicoine, who lives on North Williston Road near the intersection of Route 2, said he already has a sidewalk along one side of his property. A wide path would leave him partially landlocked.

“I understand the need to extend the bike path, but the original plans just didn’t work,” he said.

Property owners on North Williston Road and elsewhere also worry about the effect a sidewalk would have on stormwater drainage and vegetation. In some cases, mature trees will have to be cut down.

Boyden said the town has offered to mitigate impacts with drainage improvements and plantings, but he acknowledged that decades-old trees cannot be replaced.

The wider recreation path provides more room for simultaneous use by bicyclists, walkers and runners. Standard sidewalks are designed mostly for pedestrians. Still, Boyden said, residents’ cooperation is needed to construct anything, so the town is willing to make accommodations.

Hanson said the town and North Williston Road residents have tentatively agreed to a narrower path that is about 6 feet wide. She and her neighbors complimented the town for listening to their concerns.

Negotiations elsewhere in Williston have been equally arduous. Two property owners along Route 2, for example, have refused to provide an easement, preventing construction of part of the sidewalk planned from Blair Park to North Brownell Road, Boyden said.

He said the Selectboard has a long-established policy of not paying for easements. Instead, the town has appealed to residents’ sense of civic duty by mentioning that the sidewalk funding was approved by voters and then offering to make accommodations.

“You can’t drive things down people’s throats and hold a gun to their heads,” Boyden said.

The town still hopes to acquire the North Williston Road easements and begin sidewalk construction there before fall, Boyden said. Also scheduled to be constructed this year is part of the segment between Blair Park and North Brownell Road.

Other sidewalks will likely have to wait until at least next year, particularly the Mountain View Road sidewalk and the remaining Route 2 segment, which are on hold until residents provide easements.

Chicoine said he sympathizes with the town’s travails in getting sidewalk easements.

“I feel for them, too,” he said. “They are trying to make everyone happy, but that’s never going to happen.”