PORTLAND — A Business and Consumer Court judge did not rule on the town of Wiscasset’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would halt progress on the Maine Department of Transportation’s plan to significantly alter the historic village’s downtown traffic and parking pattern to ease notorious summertime bottlenecks.

Justice M. Michaela Murphy did not make a decision following a three-hour hearing in Courtroom 9 of the Cumberland County Courthouse on Thursday morning.

During the hearing, Wiscasset attorney John Shumadine and DOT counselors Jim Billings and Nathaniel Rosenblatt spoke to the court about the project and questioned witnesses about what they know about the scope of the work and the methods the DOT uses when planning and completing a project of this magnitude.

The town sued MDOT on Nov. 28 over the state’s $5 million plan after Gov. Paul LePage’s administration allegedly backed away from key promises and asserted the state didn’t have to comply with local ordinances.

William Pulver, director of project development and deputy chief engineer for DOT, said Thursday that the department doesn’t apply for local zoning permits because of the delays that process could cause and the difference in ordinances among towns, some overlapping with DOT project areas.

“We have to consider the regional and statewide impacts (of our projects),” Pulver said.

Wiscasset voters will decide Tuesday in a special election whether the town should continue its lawsuit against the Department of Transportation, and there continues to be discussion and confusion over how the town’s legal fees will be paid.

A local resident, Ralph Doering, has offered to pay for all of the town’s legal fees and has opened an escrow account with $75,000 that would be used to offset any potential cost to taxpayers. The Select Board said at its meeting last week that it has not decided whether to accept money from an outside source to pay for the lawsuit.

One of the town’s biggest contentions is that the work that went out to bid in March was not the same project that was presented to Wiscasset officials and residents throughout the planning and design process.

In order to offset the removal of on-street parking, the DOT planned to demolish a building a 36 Water Street and construct a municipal parking lot on the property.

Culver said bids were accepted for the demolition work, but weren’t awarded because of the town’s lawsuit against the department.

The construction of the parking lot at 36 Water Street is not included in the work that is currently out for bid. Pulver said with a short construction season, it would be too difficult to complete that parking lot while also completing the originally planned work in downtown Wiscasset.

“I think the future of 36 Water Street is uncertain at this point,” he said.

Erika Soule, a Wiscasset business owner and only witness called by the town, said she’s been following the process from the very beginning and expressed concern about the impact that project will have.

“My first thought was that removing the on-street parking was going to really harm my business,” Soule said. “I think it will have a severe impact on people’s ability to access Main Street in general and getting to and from the store.”

DOT Project Manager Ernie Martin testified that traffic flow and safety are the primary goals of the Wiscasset project.

He said bids are expected to be opened on April 18, and there have been no meetings between town and DOT officials since the lawsuit was filed in late November.

In a motion filed in early March, attorneys representing the town said MDOT told them it might simply drop a component of the project if the DOT is required to obtain historical appropriateness: Creating parking lots off nearby side streets to make up for the lost parking spots on Main Street.

The motion asked the Business and Consumer Court to prevent any work on any part of the project from commencing until the department seeks and receives the town’s historic preservation review.

“This raises the possibility that MDOT might seek a truncated project that strips all parking from Main Street but does not provide any off-street parking in its place, a configuration that was never reviewed or discussed with the town and that does even more violence to the local interests than the original scheme,” Shumadine wrote in a filing last month.

The transportation department has contended that the town’s historic preservation ordinance is not a zoning ordinance, and therefore it isn’t forced to comply with the ordinance under state law.

The town argued that the project, and numerous components, must comply with the town’s historic preservation ordinance and must receive one of more certificates of appropriateness from Wiscasset’s historic preservation commission.

The center of Wiscasset’s village is a district of 18th- and 19th-century buildings named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

There are daily and infamous traffic jams 2 to 3 miles long on U.S. Route 1 on the north — by famous lobster roll shop Red’s Eats — and south approaches to the Davey Bridge that spans the Sheepscot River. The state has been trying to solve the problem for more than 50 years.

The state’s latest plan was unveiled in two years ago and promised to improve traffic flow at its worst by 12 percent to 14 percent, mostly by adding two traffic lights and curb extensions in the village — components that nobody opposes.

But it also seeks to remove parking on Main Street — currently 23 spaces — and parts of key side streets, measures that the state says account for just 2 percent to 4 percent of flow improvement.

 

 

filed under: