PORTLAND, Maine — State Sen. Dawn Hill of York Thursday morning urged the Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors to see beyond the “facts and figures” of engineering reports connected with moving the York toll plaza to another location, and to listen to the people.
“I’m very proud of these people,” she said of the 50 or so members and supporters of the citizens group Think Again who crowded into the board meeting room Thursday. “Certainly there are engineering reports, but there’s a big people factor here, too. The people here today are taxpayers, and toll payers but you know what? They’re Mainers. They have every right to speak up and they have every right to be listened to.”
Hill was one of about 20 people who spoke at the MTA board meeting, in an attempt to dissuade the board from voting at its next meeting to move forward on a site at mile 8.8 on the turnpike — about 1.5 miles from the current plaza. They argued the board needed more information before making that decision, although chair Daniel Wathen later indicated it was likely the board would not delay the vote.
Comments from residents centered on potential plummeting real estate values, with many mile 8.8 abutters from Chases Pond Road and the Whippoorwill subdivision speaking, as well as safety, noise pollution and environmental concerns.
Don Lawton, on the board of the Whippoorwill Homeowners Association, said his house is “directly across from mile 8.8.” The subdivision has a total assessed value of $40 million and a market value of $50 million, according to Lawton. He said real estate agents have told the association members that if a plaza were to go in, homeowners could expect to see the value of their homes go down by as much as 10 percent.
“If you’re talking about a $500,000 house, that’s $50,000. That’s a lot of money,” he said.
Consultants Jacobs Engineering, which is recommending mile 8.8, indicated in its report that there would be no abutter impact if the plaza was built there. Lawton said he strongly disagrees with that contention.
Dean Lessard, York’s director of public works, told the board that as manager for town projects, he looks at safety and abutter impact first, and then at engineering considerations. He suggested the board approach this project the same way.
He said there hasn’t been an analysis of crash reports that would give the board a sense of whether one location is safer than another. He also said the board should commission a report on future capacity of the plaza, as was done when plazas in Gardner and Falmouth were rebuilt. Without such a report, he said, it will be difficult to “appropriately size” the plaza.
Todd Bezold of Chases Pond Road was one of a number of residents who raised the issue of potential noise, air and environmental pollution. He said with the plaza at its current location, noise from traffic backups “can be quite deafening at times” in his neighborhood. The MTA staff has long contended the new plaza, which will contain highway-speed tolling lanes not currently at the current plaza, will reduce noise and air pollution significantly.
Randy Small of Chases Pond Road urged the board and the staff to “be honest” in their dealings with residents.
“This is going to affect lives, no question about it,” he said. “I realize that you’re looking at what’s best for Maine. But you also have to consider what’s best for York, Maine.”
That theme was further explored by state Rep. Patty Hymanson of York.
“People are looking for transparency and answers to their questions to alleviate their anxiety — problems with property values, noise pollution, air pollution, taking of private land, changing neighborhoods, introducing pollutants to sensitive lands.”
The MTA’s Wathen said later that, although he was one of only five voting members, he did anticipate the board would not delay the vote at its next meeting Oct. 15. “The comments focused on areas we need to look at, and we will. They’ve raised legitimate considerations,” he said, but added it was “my expectation that we’ll make a decision at the next meeting.”
Think Again leader Joan Jarvis said she was not surprised to hear that, but said she felt the group had made its case in reasoned, clear language and said they are ready to go the distance — becoming involved in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and federal Army Corps of Engineers permitting process, the next stage after the board vote.