Despite recent votes by Wiscasset residents and then the Board of Selectmen to pull support for the plan and a pending lawsuit opposing the plan, the state appears ready to move forward with a $5 million traffic project that opponents say will damage the town’s historic value and drive Main Street shops and stores out of business.
For decades, traffic backed up along Main Street — Route 1 — in tiny Wiscasset has prompted state officials to commission traffic studies and debate fixes like a controversial bypass route eventually abandoned in 2011.
In June 2016, presented with three options — including taking no action — Wiscasset residents voted to support what is known as “Option 2”: removing 53 parking spaces on Main, Middle and Water streets to make way for additional lanes of traffic, and demolishing the historic Haggett Garage, which the state has since acquired through eminent domain, to create 25 of a total of 88 new spaces on side streets.
But in February, Portland attorney Robert Hark filed suit in Lincoln County Superior Court on behalf of Ralph H. Doering and his family, who own a number of downtown properties, alleging that the MDOT’s public participation proceedings were “flawed,” that the state told voters they would not take any property by eminent domain and that the state opted to forgo $4 million in federal funding — 80 percent of the cost of the project — in order to skirt accompanying federal historic and environmental regulations.
Ted Talbot, spokesman for the MDOT, said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
On June 13, following a petition, residents voted 400-323 in a nonbinding referendum to pull support from project. On June 20, selectmen voted to send a letter to the MDOT saying it no longer supports the project.
Hark said Thursday that discovery in the suit continues and that he doesn’t expect it to go to trial until fall. But he provided to the Bangor Daily News copies of an alternative traffic study prepared by TND Engineering of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for the Doerings, which Hark said shows that MDOT was trying to influence locals to back their preferred option, which includes eliminating parking on Main Street.
“MDOT’s project is a solution to someone else’s problem, at Wiscasset’s expense,” Hark wrote.
In a June 20 letter to Wiscasset selectmen, which Hark sent with the report, Hark wrote that “among the disturbing things” unearthed in the report “is that MDOT insisted on a number of deliberate changes in its own traffic consultant’s (HNTB’s) report in an effort to support Option 2.”
Specifically, Hark notes that the MDOT edited the report to downplay the harm done by removing Main Street parking, taking out references in the original report to “severe impacts to businesses.”
Hark said the MDOT replaced a paragraph in the report that included the sentence, “Economic viability is a key factor in the consideration of on-street parking” with language stating that on-street parking spots are instead intended to “create slower moving traffic and are not designed to accommodate the summer high volumes of through-travelling traffic such as along Route 1 in Wiscasset.”
Hark said the MDOT failed to provide an opportunity for “effective public participation,” as required by law, and failed to make public that the same study was conducted in 1996 and “basically said that what they’re planning to do wouldn’t have any significant effect” [on Route 1 traffic].
“It seems to us that the MDOT’s version of what effective public participation is is limited to what the MDOT wants the public to know,” Hark said recently. “We can’t figure out why they’re pushing this project. It’s $5 million, with no federal funds, and it does nothing for Wiscasset. Maybe some businesses further up the road are pushing this, but it does nothing for Wiscasset except threaten to harm businesses in the village and make it economically hard to keep their tenants and to keep the historical nature” of the town.
Wiscasset resident Bill Sutter, another opponent of the project, said Thursday that the MDOT said as recently as July 27 that it would move forward with the project, despite new information showing that “taking parking away from a central business district is a death knell.” But he said, “Every word that has come out of the DOT is that they are paying no attention and saying that the vote has no legal standing and they are not obliged to do anything differently than what they intend to do.”
When the MDOT opted not to use federal funding, they were no longer required to abide by federal historic or environmental rules. Whether the state will abide by a requirement by the Wiscasset Historic Preservation Ordinance in obtaining a certificate of appropriateness remains to be seen. Meanwhile, an effort in town to repeal the historic preservation ordinance that established that commission is ongoing.