Roundabout ruling collides with public opinion (4/23/09)

April 23, 2009

Opponents petition to overturn traffic measure

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Upset by plans for a roundabout in Williston Village, residents have launched a petition drive aimed at reversing the town’s course.

The petition states there is no evidence the roundabout is needed and asserts that it would “compromise our historic district” and hurt the church and convenience store at the intersection.

The roundabout was one of three options to smooth traffic flow at the intersection where U.S. 2 meets North Williston and Oak Hill roads. The Selectboard unanimously voted at its March 23 meeting to install a roundabout rather than add traffic signals or leave in place the existing four-way stop signs.

A study found the intersection was one of the most hazardous in the state, with 25 accidents within a five-year period ending in 2006. The high-crash designation made the intersection eligible for nearly $1 million in federal funding to pay for a roundabout or a smaller amount to install a traffic signal.

But many residents who attended a February public hearing on the issue argued intersection improvements were not needed because accidents have stopped occurring and traffic congestion has eased in the past few years.

Since the Selectboard’s vote, a groundswell of discontent has bubbled up among many residents.

The Williston Observer has received an unusually large number of letters to the editor on the topic, mostly from people angered by the board’s decision. There has been considerable commentary posted on Front Porch Forum, a locally operated Internet site that facilitates communication among neighbors. And Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs recently met with residents to discuss the issue.

Even Williston Federated Church, located at the intersection, has entered the fray. The church’s governing board voted to formally oppose the roundabout earlier this month, said Ken Stone, the board’s chairman.

Ginger Isham, who writes a recipe column for the Observer, apparently initiated the petition drive a couple of weeks ago. She was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

But others involved with the effort said petitions have been placed at local businesses and circulated among neighbors. Williston resident Marie Lereau said on Tuesday the petitions she has collected have about 150 signatures.

“We’re just trying to spread it through word of mouth,” Lereau said. “Hopefully, it’s mushrooming.”

Town Clerk Deb Beckett said the people she’s heard from feel the board ignored their wishes.

“This is really ticking people off,” she said.

But not everyone opposes the roundabout. Resident Bob Pasco wrote a letter to the editor praising the Selectboard’s leadership. He said the roundabout was the best way to maintain traffic flow and the historic character of the village.

“It beats the heck out of idling in line and waiting for the light to change,” he wrote. “And it beats having flashing lights and overhead wires mar this historic intersection.”

Still, many residents were upset by the Selectboard’s decision. Some worry it would negatively impact the century-old Williston Federated Church and the busy Korner Kwik Stop.

“The town’s got a lot of nerve doing what they are doing,” said Mike Isham, Ginger Isham’s son. “There’s no room for it, and it will affect the church and a local business.”

Roundabout plans

The single-lane roundabout approved by the Selectboard was detailed in a study by Burlington-based Resource Systems Group. It would feature a center circle 120 feet in diameter and include rounded curbs and wide shoulders designed to accommodate large trucks.

The study presents a conceptual design that could be altered somewhat during final engineering, said Mark Smith, senior project consultant with RSG. But he said the size of the roundabout should remain roughly the same.

The roundabout would stay within the public right-of-way except for a 20-foot-long triangular-shaped piece of the Federated Church property, according to Smith.

But it does edge up to property lines at the Korner Kwik Stop and homes around the intersection. Smith acknowledged that landscaping and drainage work associated with the project could affect adjacent properties.

The new roundabout would not be comparable to the one in Maple Tree Place, Smith said. Supporters have pointed out that the retail center’s roundabout is much smaller and so does not function properly.

In any case, construction of the roundabout won’t begin any time soon. Final plans must be drawn up and permits obtained, a process that would take at least a year and perhaps much longer, Smith said.

Officials take notice

Residents can petition to hold a town-wide vote on the roundabout or any other issue. It is unclear whether the petition being circulated by Lereau and others would spur a town-wide vote.

Five percent of registered voters must sign a petition — 365 in Williston’s case — to trigger a referendum. But the petition being circulated does not include language specifically asking for a town-wide vote.

Regardless, the petition has gotten the attention of town officials. Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said he would be willing to take another look at the roundabout decision if presented with a petition. Both Macaig and Town Manager Rick McGuire suggested a public forum would be the best venue for airing concerns and explaining facts.

The town has long considered a roundabout the best way to handle the rush-hour traffic backups. In fact, about six years ago the Selectboard approved a roundabout at the intersection. But the project languished for lack of funding.

Back then the roundabout also had foes, albeit only a few nearby residents. This time, opposition spread beyond immediate neighbors, although it appears to be coming mainly from those who live in and around the village.

Jill Mellion lives 2.5 miles away from the intersection on South Road but she is still strongly opposed to the roundabout. She considers it unnecessary and ugly.

“It would just make our little town look tacky,” Mellion said. “That sort of thing doesn’t belong in the village. We have Taft Corners already and we love it. We don’t need it here.”