VASSALBORO — Residents are divided over a proposed state project that would add sidewalks to the East Village, raising questions about pedestrian safety and tax increases.

About 30 people attended a public hearing at the Town Office Thursday night, debating the proposal for more than an hour prior to a regular select board meeting.

The town proposes to latch onto a state project that would cover 80 percent of the costs, leaving the town with a $58,600 price tag. Some residents say that amount is too great and could raise taxes, while supporters say it’s necessary to improve safety for pedestrians, including children, who walk in the area.

The Maine Department of Transportation is moving forward with plans to rebuild Route 32 from South China to Winslow using a federal grant in 2018. The state is willing to enter into an agreement with Vassalboro to build sidewalks along with road construction.

The town would be locked in at $58,600 and would not be asked to pay more than that, said Patrick Adams, the bicycle and pedestrian program manager at the transportation department.

After the state project on Route 32, a five-year moratorium would be placed on the area so the town would not be allowed to do any construction on the road. The costs are continuing to rise, said Holly Weidner, a conservation commission member who is helping develop the sidewalk project. The current proposal is now more expensive than a previous proposal about three years ago to build a large-scale safety project that included a pedestrian bridge, sidewalks, biking lanes, parking and more.

The town’s commitment would come from surplus, which currently has a balance of about $1.1 million, said Selectman Philip Haines.

The town takes $150,000 from surplus annually to offset taxation, said Selectman Lauchlin Titus, and this $58,600 would come from the $150,000 share.

Some residents argued that this means the project could increase their taxes. One woman said she didn’t want her taxes to increase for a project that would only affect those who live in East Vassalboro. She also questioned why a rural community like Vassalboro needed to get sidewalks.

One resident, Sarah Sugden, a former member of the Vassalboro School Committee, said she wanted sidewalks or some other safety measure because she has young children. She lives on Main Street and has had two cats killed by cars and one dog that was hit but lived. She said she worries every day that her children might get hurt, and that she wishes they could walk to friends’ houses safely. Right now, the road is too narrow and has no shoulder, she said.

“My little 8-year-old girl should be able to walk to a friend’s house around the corner,” she said. “There has to be a solution. I don’t see how we’re going to grow our community … if we don’t say safety is important.”

Weidner also said that the project is about safety.

“We look at the town and we want it to be safe,” she said. According to Weidner, more than 200 people died from road accidents in Maine last year.

The state plans to widen the road and put in 5-foot shoulders regardless of how the town votes on the sidewalk proposal. A wider road encourages people to speed up, Weidner said, and as speed increases, the rate of people dying from road accidents also increases. Building sidewalks is one way to anticipate these changes and create a safer environment, she said. The project will also look at other ways to “calm” traffic and reduce speeding if and when it enters the design process.

“If you choose not to vote for this, you’re saying, ‘Don’t plan for this,'” Weidner said.

The sidewalks would also require maintenance, including snow removal. The selectmen had only realized they would have to come up with a maintenance plan on Thursday afternoon, so they did not have annual costs for maintenance available for the public. They said they plan to discuss it at future select board meetings and then make the information available to the town within four weeks.

Adams said he doesn’t expect it would cost more than $1,000 annually to maintain the sidewalks, which would be the town’s responsibility for 20 years. If the town doesn’t directly maintain the sidewalks, the state could hire-out maintenance and then charge the costs back to the town, he said.

Charlie Hartman, who lives on Sawmill Road, brought in photos to show that the sidewalks in North Vassalboro have not been well maintained. The Department of Transportation plans to update the sidewalks as part of the Route 32 project.

Hartman also brought up the issue of some houses’ proximity to the road. East Vassalboro is a congested area and the road is narrow. Some are concerned that the widening of the road and the addition of sidewalks will take away their driveways or part of their property.

“It’s narrow, we understand that,” Adams said. “We are trying to find an accommodation that will meet vehicular needs, pedestrian needs and bicycle needs. Our desire is to minimize the impact as much as possible.”

Adams said he believes they will be able to do the majority of the project within the existing right-of-way.

The selectmen previously voted to approve putting the project on the ballot 2-1. Robert Browne opposes the project, saying he’d rather use the money for something that would have a wider impact on Vassalboro. He also said he thinks the project may affect local businesses and wouldn’t make the area completely safe. When a resident asked what he would propose to address safety problems in the East Village, he said he didn’t have an idea at the time.

Adams said that the town can choose to not move forward in the project during the design process if the state and the town cannot agree on solutions. The town will be billed after the state spends money, so it won’t be paying a sum upfront.

The Planning Board also held a public hearing Thursday evening on proposed changes to the shoreland zoning ordinance. The changes are in response to changes in the state ordinance, which now uses footprint to measure the area of a structure instead of volume and square-footage.

Previously, the town allowed residents to expand their homes in the shoreland zone by up to 15 percent. This change would allow residents to expand by up to 30 percent of their footprint, depending on how far back the structure is from the water.

The upshot, Titus said, is that residents will be able to do more with this ordinance than they could previously.

“There’s a good light at the end of the tunnel compared to what there has been,” said Code Enforcement Officer Richard Dolby.

Some residents were concerned with a height restriction, which they said would limit people’s expansion options. The tallest a structure can be is 25 feet, if they are over 75 feet but less than 100 feet away from the water. The height restriction set by the state is for visual aesthetic purposes, according to Dolby.

“It used to be if you had the right skill set you could build a house,” said James Jurdack, a resident. Now, he said, you also have to spend money on someone to check that you are following the code correctly. He was also concerned that people who lived on sloped properties would have a hard time complying with the height restriction, which is measured from the peak of the roof to the bottom of the structure.

Residents could go through the appeals process to try to receive a variance if they had an issue with that, said Planning Board Chairwoman Ginny Brackett.

Madeline St. Amour – 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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