WISCASSET — Residents will decide today whether to continue the town’s controversial lawsuit against the Maine Department of Transportation related to the MDOT’s plan to ease the notorious summer traffic bottlenecks in the historic village’s downtown.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. at the Wiscasset Community Center and will close at 8 p.m. As of 8:45 a.m., around 10 people had voted.

Town Clerk Linda Perry said she expected about 25 percent of the town’s 2,900 registered voters to cast ballots in the 2-question special election, including 200 people who voted via absentee ballots.

“For this type of election, it’ll be a good turnout,” Perry said. For perspective, she said there was about 75 percent turnout for the 2016 presidential election.

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

DOT press secretary Ted Talbot said the department would not comment on the pending lawsuit or Tuesday’s vote.

Last week, lawyers for both sides argued before a justice of the Business and Consumer Court in Portland after the town filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to halt work on the project. The MDOT put the project out for bid in March and is set to open the bids this week.

Justice M. Michaela Murphy did not make a decision after two days of arguments by attorneys and testimony from a Wiscasset business owner, William Pulver, director of project development and deputy chief engineer for DOT and DOT project manager Ernie Martin.

Selectman Ben Rines, Jr., — a proponent of the lawsuit — was the first person to vote Tuesday morning. He said no matter how the vote turns out, he hopes the town can come together and move forward.

“I think the town’s vote will be respected,” he said. “I think one way or the other this will be the end of this.”

Anne Leslie is one resident who hopes the people in Wiscasset vote to continue the lawsuit. She was one of the first few people to cast their vote in the 8 o’clock hour.

“I feel really strongly about the future of the village, and I feel that MDOT has just bulldozed its way through the town,” Leslie said. “I think the lawsuit is important because it’s about whether MDOT can ignore town laws.”

Leslie said it’s unfortunate that a lot of the debate and discussion about the project and the lawsuit has been about the design and the scope of the work, rather than the actual basis for the suit: Whether MDOT has to abide by local ordinances.

She said it’s important that there is a decision on whether MDOT has to follow local and state laws. If the lawsuit prevails, Leslie said, the department will have to come back to the town to come up with a better plan.

“One thing that makes me sad is that people on our side have been characterized as being anti progress, but we want change,” Leslie said. “We want the town to do well.”

Brad Sevaldson, a member of the community group Wiscasset Moves Forward, which opposes the lawsuit, said members went door-to-door in the last few weeks urging people to get out and vote.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the ‘no’ vote will win, and hopefully Wiscasset can begin to think and move forward,” Sevaldson said.

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.

 

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