WISCASSET — Keith Oehmig has owned and operated the Wiscasset Bay Gallery in the heart of this town’s historic village for 33 years, but he’s certain that if the state’s controversial traffic project goes ahead, he and many other shopkeepers will be driven away, turning the center of the “Prettiest Little Village in Maine” into a ghost town.

“If we lose on-street parking in town, it will be disastrous for all the businesses on Main Street,” says Oehmig. “There are solutions that are much better, but they are just hell-bent on doing this.”

Keith Oehmig, longtime owner of Wiscasset Bay Gallery, opposes MDOT’s plan: “If we lose on-street parking in town, it will be disastrous for all the businesses on Main Street.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Directly across Main Street at Birch, a 2-year-old home furnishings store, co-owner Brad Sevaldson sees the same project as downtown’s salvation, a chance to have the state repair and spiff up the sidewalks of this cash-strapped town, while making the state road safer for motorists and pedestrians alike.

“This is going to improve our curb appeal and help attract younger families and people to town,” he insists. “We look at the state as giving us a gift because this is something Wiscasset couldn’t afford to do.”

Brad Sevaldson, co-owner of the Main Street store Birch, favors the proposal: “We look at the state as giving us a gift because this is something Wiscasset couldn’t afford to do.” Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The state government’s latest effort to mitigate one of Maine’s most notorious summertime traffic bottlenecks has bitterly divided this town of 3,700, triggering lawsuits, accusations of duplicitous dealings by Maine Department of Transportation, and heated disagreement between opponents and supporters, including Gov. Paul LePage, who has said he’s had enough of the townspeople’s complaints and would like to build a viaduct right over the area.

“I have given MDOT full authority to fix this nightmare with or without working with Wiscasset,” LePage wrote a constituent in August. “After 65 years of trying to work with Wiscasset, the time has come to move on.”

The village center – a largely intact complex of 18th and 19th century buildings that was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 – is the site of notorious summer traffic jams 2 and 3 miles long as Route 1 traffic winds through the village going to and from the bridge over the Sheepscot River connecting the Boothbay and Damariscotta regions with points south. The state has been trying to solve the problem for more than half a century.

The $5 million state-funded project promises to improve traffic flow during the worst traffic jams by 12 to 14 percent – thereby cutting the length of backups by nearly 60 percent – primarily by adding two traffic lights and “bump out” pedestrian crossing waiting areas in the village. But it’s the elimination of on-street parking on Main Street and parts of key side streets – measures the DOT says account for just 2 to 4 percent flow improvement – that’s generated most of the opposition.

Residents and the select board were initially supportive of the plan, but majorities of both now oppose it because they say the state has not upheld its end of the bargain, breaking key promises. In June, residents revoked their support for what they considered an altered plan in a town referendum 400-323, and the select board did the same, 3-2. The town filed a lawsuit against the DOT on Nov. 28 to stop work from commencing.

Bill Sutter, a Wiscasset native who worked for the DOT for 30 years, became alarmed when he heard the agency had quietly dropped plans to use federal funds to cover 80 percent of the project costs shortly after receiving initial approval from the town in June 2016. Sutter knew the move exempted the project from having to follow federal historic preservation and environmental rules as the department had promised when pitching the project to residents.

“It’s like going back to the failed urban redevelopment experiment of the 1960s, when they went in favor of the automobile and tore down things like Portland’s Union Station,” says Sutter, one of the early opposition leaders. “The people in Wiscasset who support this project are nice people, but I think they’re misguided in what is going on and what the results will be.”

EMINENT DOMAIN ACTION FURTHER ERODED Trust

The department lost additional trust when it reversed prior assurances that it would not use eminent domain to execute it. The Haggett Garage – a 1916 structure that was owned by Coastal Enterprises Inc., the community economic development nonprofit – was under contract to be sold to its current tenant, the Midcoast Conservancy, when the DOT intervened to acquire it by eminent domain, intending to knock it down to make way for substitute parking.

“CEI had no choice,” says Ron Phillips, the organization’s founder and longtime CEO, who sat on the board of it and the Midcoast Conservancy at the time. “Neither CEI nor myself had thought the building was at risk, because they said they wouldn’t take properties.”

DOT spokesman Ted Talbot responded that the department had “hoped and relayed that eminent domain would most likely not be necessary,” but he also characterized CEI as “a willing seller” to the state, an assertion Phillips disputes.

Phillips wrote to LePage this June in the hopes of saving the building and preventing the year-round tenants and their nine employees from leaving downtown. He got a blunt email response from the governor, who has to cross the bridge to get from the Blaine House to his Boothbay home.

“We are moving forward because we are convinced Wiscasset has no interest in working with the state to resolve this drastic issue,” LePage wrote June 26. “Next step is doing what was done in Bath – we go over the downtown and by-pass Wiscasset altogether.”

The governor expanded on these themes in another message to Phillips on Aug. 14. “Since 1952, the state has worked with Wiscasset to try and find a solution. Every effort has failed,” LePage wrote. “Between June and September, it takes approximately (give or take a few minutes) 1 hour 20 minutes to go from Augusta to Boothbay. The rest of the year it takes 40 minutes.”

“We get daily complaints and the town simply wants what they want – while the general public is held hostage,” he added. “If it were up to me – I would do what was done in Bath. I’d put a bridge from the post office to the middle of the bridge and by-pass downtown. U.S. 1 is a state responsibility and not the town.”

The governor’s office did not respond to the Maine Sunday Telegram’s request for comment.

PREDICTED ‘SEVERE IMPACTS’ REMOVED IN EDITED REPORT

Meanwhile, village business and commercial property owners have charged the DOT is intentionally concealing the effect that the loss of on-street parking will have on the downtown.

Ralph Doering, a seasonal resident whose family owns several commercial properties on and near Main Street, hired an attorney and traffic engineer to review project documents acquired from the department via public records requests. They discovered the department had removed language in its own traffic consultant’s report prior to releasing it to the public that predicted “severe impacts” to local businesses. The Maine Sunday Telegram obtained and reviewed the documents.

That draft report by HNTB Corp., the global engineering powerhouse that designed the Maine Turnpike, identified Orono as the best comparison for the effects of removing on-street parking. “Businesses that survived (banks, convenience store, Town offices) had own off-street parking,” the report said. “Nature of Business changed. Several replaced front door with rear door.”

DOT personnel removed most of this language, leaving an upbeat version that suggested everything had gone fine in Orono.

“You don’t have to be a real estate professional to know that if you take parking away from Main Street it’s really detrimental, as businesses will close or they will go out of town to locations where parking is more readily available,” says Doering, whose lawsuit to stop the project was rejected by a lower court on largely technical grounds and is currently on appeal before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. “The MDOT can’t really tell you the truth because the truth doesn’t work.”

Maine Preservation, the Yarmouth-based historic preservation group, agrees. It included the village on its 2017 Maine’s Most Endangered Places list on account of the project, saying it will have a “devastating impact on the viability of businesses in this vibrant commercial district.”

Greg Paxton, the organization’s executive director, says it is also concerned about the department eschewing $4 million in federal funds and the associated historic preservation requirements. “That’s a lot of money to pay to avoid a standard review,” he says.

In a written response, DOT’s Talbot acknowledged the department is avoiding using federal funds but said it is doing so to reduce red tape and delays. “Federal processes, reviews, and associated approvals can add months to project delivery timeframes,” he said, adding that federal funds also restricted generating commercial income from properties they helped develop.

The department declined an interview request because of the town’s pending litigation, answering submitted questions only in written form. It also declined to say what its official position on the effect on Main Street businesses is.

A document on the department’s website dated July 17 states that the HNTB report was edited to remove wording “in areas that went beyond the assigned task” and were part of the “normal process of finalizing studies and reports.”

TOWN ALLEGES STATE BROKE ITS COMMITMENT

The town’s lawsuit claims the department is violating state laws requiring it to comply with local zoning and ordinances and asserting it needs to get local permission and permits before it can demolish the Haggett Garage, which the department initially intended to begin taking down last week. The town also alleges the state broke its commitment with the town to draft an agreement that would spell out how ongoing costs associated with the project – such as the maintenance of sidewalks, parking lots and landscaping – will be covered. It is scheduled to be heard in February.

Public documents show the DOT has instructed would-be contractors not to apply for local permits to undertake the demolition. Talbot declined to comment on the issue on account of the lawsuit, but the department has previously maintained that it does not need local approvals.

“They are just hell-bent to get done what they have all planned,” says Katharine Martin-Savage, one of the select board members who voted to file the suit. “I really wish they would be serious enough to sit down and really discuss a compromise of some sort that allows parking on both sides of Main Street.”

But the project has plenty of supporters. The select boards of neighboring Alna and Edgecomb have written the area’s state senator, Republican Dana Dow, asking him not to try to intervene to stop the removal of on-street parking. “When the Legislature emboldens those who will not accept the potential outcomes of a lawful process that is designed to serve us all, it sends a negative and disheartening message to the rest of us who work, live or visit here,” the Nov. 20 letter read.

Supporters who live in the village emphasize what they believe will be improved safety and walkability. “There shouldn’t be parking downtown – it’s surprising that nobody has been killed,” says Lonnie Kennedy-Patterson, who lives near the Haggett Garage and sits on the public advisory committee for the project. “Our sidewalks are falling apart, and it’s going to cost $400,000 to $500,000 to fix them. … Who wouldn’t want their infrastructure updated and not have to use taxpayer dollars?”

DOT concept plans feature widened Main Street sidewalks with new trees, benches, street lamps and outdoor tables. Railroad Avenue, a dirt track running alongside the riverfront north of the bridge, will be paved and expanded to include on-street and lot parking, while Haggett’s will be demolished to create a 29-space lot a hundred yards south of Route 1.

“Once you’ve established a business, people will park their cars a ways away and walk to you, just as they do now for Red’s Eats,” the popular lobster roll eatery next to the bridge, says Judy Flanagan, who was vice chairwoman of the select board when the project was first approved last year. “I just see it as a step forward for the town.” Sevaldson, the owner of Birch, agrees. “It’s important for us to come into the 21st century,” he says. “We don’t have horse and buggies outside our shops anymore. You need to change with the times.”

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