BARRE TOWN — The Select Board is officially on the clock when it comes to deciding how to get from here to there with respect to two currently unconnected segments of bike path.
The board held yet another public hearing this week on a proposal that has galvanized one neighborhood and that produced no clear-cut recommendation from a committee that studied it. Afterward, board members agreed to decide how to proceed when they meet again Tuesday.
They aren’t looking forward to it.
“This is a tough one,” Selectman Jeff Newton said. “No matter what you’re going to do you’re either going to spend a lot of money or ruffle a lot of feathers, and I don’t want to do either.”
Newton and the rest of the five-member board will have to pick one or punt, because the list of options is limited.
By Newton’s count there are four. One is to do nothing, while another would involve kicking the issue back to a committee that has studied — and in some case re-studied — alternate routes, including the two that are still on the table.
One of those routes, the favored choice after a consultant-led process that initially ended in June, has provoked a firestorm of opposition among residents of Lower Sterling Hill Road. The other, which would empty onto Pouliot Avenue in neighboring Barre, would cost nearly $1.6 million. That’s more than twice the $700,000 price consultants have placed on the Sterling Hill route.
Enter the Select Board, which, over the past few months, has heard emphatically from residents of Lower Sterling Hill Road that they want no part of a path that would run through their quiet neighborhood and up a currently wooded hillside to Websterville.
Given the narrowness of the South Barre side street and its popularity as a seasonal shortcut, neighbors claim the route would be unsafe. They are also concerned the proposed path would attract unfamiliar people to their neighborhood, scar the hillside, and possibly exacerbate stormwater problems that have twice (in 2007 and 2011) washed the steep upper section of Sterling Hill Road down onto their properties.
Those concerns were aired again Tuesday night during a public hearing that was billed as the last chance for residents to weigh in on plans for a connector path. The connector would link the bike path that exists behind Barre Town Middle and Elementary School in Websterville with the one that runs into the city and past its elementary school from Bridge Street in South Barre.
Though he said he hasn’t yet made up his mind, Selectman Jeff Blow sought to downplay the significance of next week’s decision.
“I really don’t want people to get the conception that if we choose to do a route that it’s gospel that it’s going to get built, because a plan is only writing on paper,” Blow said, noting that coming up with the money to build the path and securing easements would both be major hurdles.
Like others on the board, Blow said he’d received calls and emails on both sides of the subject and appreciated many of the concerns and observations but was undecided.
“I frankly don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
Selectman Rob LaClair said he believed he knew how he was going to vote but wanted another week to think about it.
The bike path proposal has twice prompted the board to request that a committee revisit alternatives to the Sterling Hill route based on neighbors’ objections.
Late last year the committee rejected a $3.4 million alternative that would have come down the hill to Wilson Street before funneling cyclists onto Route 14 near Hannaford Supermarket. Subsequently asked to re-evaluate the Pouliot Avenue option, a divided committee was unable to make a meaningful recommendation to the board.
Residents of Lower Sterling Hill Road, including committee member Ken Alger and his wife, Wendy, were among those who spoke at the hearing. They reiterated concerns that their road could not safely accommodate the proposed path.
Bizhan Yahyazadeh, whose mother-in-law, Doris Riendeau, lives on Lower Sterling Hill Road, echoed that assessment, suggesting her refusal to allow a bridge needed for the proposed path to cross a corner of her property should kill that option unless the board was prepared to exercise its power of eminent domain.
“If there is no agreement from (Riendeau), how are you gentlemen … going to deal with it?” Yahyazadeh asked the board.
Although board members indicated they would not be inclined to use eminent domain, Blow said that did not necessarily mean the Sterling Hill option was off the table.
“People change their minds all the time. Property owners change, (and) different property owners may take a different position,” he said.
Not everyone who spoke was opposed to the Sterling Hill option. Resident Jeff Tucker said while he understood and appreciated some of the concerns raised by neighbors, he was troubled by others.
“As a taxpayer I’m a little concerned when somebody says: ‘I don’t want somebody else walking down a public road in front of my house,’” he said.
The board also heard from resident Allan Heath, who said he believed both proposed alignments were fraught with problems. He suggested that incorporating a sidewalk and bike lane in the state’s planned reconstruction of Route 14 could create a loop with the existing section of bike path that runs from the city to South Barre.
Heath conceded his alternative would abandon plans to connect existing segments of bike path in Websterville and South Barre.
Creating that connection has been the goal of a study that has been underwritten by $500,000 that Barre businessman Charlie Semprebon left the town for that purpose at his death in 2009. Semprebon left an identical amount for the same purpose to the city, but finding a suitable route in the town has proven far more challenging.
The latest public hearing had resident Paul McGinley shaking his head.
“Charlie (Semprebon) wouldn’t like this happening,” McGinley said of the “wrangling” over a bike path that he believed would be an important community asset.
Newton said it might be worth checking with Semprebon’s family to see where they stood.
“I know we’re tasked with the decision, but if my name was tacked on a bike path that was going to ruffle a whole neighborhood, maybe I’d want to hear their thoughts on it,” he said.
Chairman Jay Perkins said he believed the board had enough information to decide and agreed with LaClair’s call for a vote in a week.
“I think we owe it to the Semprebon family and to the bike path committee to move on,” he said.
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