HALLOWELL — Some city property owners are upset with a last-minute change to landmark Water Street construction that prevented completion of construction of a sidewalk from Granite City Park to the Hallowell Boat Landing.

The dispute is raising questions about transparency of the project changes and the justification for ending the sidewalk shorter than planned, with some officials citing “religious and cultural” reasons for keeping boulders in front of a Chinese restaurant.

Former City Councilor Alan Stearns, who served during the project’s planning period, said the sidewalk, which runs until the parking lot of the Lucky Garden restaurant, has been unjustly abandoned.

“The nutshell of the issue is that the owner of the building resisted eminent domain,” he said. “We had planned a sidewalk connecting the Lucky Garden to the boat ramp.”

Stearns said the change meant the project didn’t follow through on a 2016 resolution by the council, which allocated about up to $483,762 toward a number of tasks, including sidewalk extensions.

The project change was made without council action after a March meeting among the Lucky Garden owners, city officials and Maine Department of Transportation officials, according to interviews with multiple sources. Officials apparently agreed to the change after opting to honor the wishes of Lucky Garden owners Tony and Annie Huang to stop the sidewalk before their parking lot — where it had stopped prior to construction — to maintain space in their lot and preserve the group of decorative rocks in front of the restaurant.

Councilor Lisa Harvey-McPherson said it was her understanding that there were “religious and cultural” reasons for keeping the boulders in place.

“It was a delicate negotiation,” she said during a Oct. 23 candidates’ forum. “There are issues around religious and cultural beliefs around the rocks, and we had to respect that of the owners.”

Mayor Mark Walker, meanwhile, said a building entrance is important to Chinese culture.

Asked to speak about the boulders earlier this month, Annie Huang said the restaurant hired a lawyer to represent its interests because she and Tony Huang did not understand the legal process. She declined to tell the Kennebec Journal which lawyer represents the business.

On Monday, when asked to speak further about the boulders, Annie Huang declined to comment.

A plan dated Nov. 11, 2016, show a sidewalk running in front of the restaurant’s parking lot and stopping at the boat landing.

DOT Project Manager Ernie Martin said the plan was altered at the wish of the city after the March meeting. He said the issue arose during the easement gathering process prior to construction, in which the DOT obtains permission to work on land owned by abutters to the project. Initially, the Huangs approved moving the boulders, according to Walker, but when the owners learned the change would be permanent, they rescinded their permission.

“I don’t think (the Huangs) understood the engineer when they talked with them,” Walker said Monday, noting that the Huangs do not speak English as a first language. “Probably due to language difficulties, they thought it was a temporary change.

“They thought the rocks would be returned to their location,” he added. “We, the city, facilitated a meeting; (and) after that meeting, that’s when the change was made.”

During that meeting, transportation department officials provided two options to the city and owners: moving the boulders back to accommodate a sidewalk, or placing a curb around the boulders and filling the space outside them with gravel. The latter option was selected and is what exists at the site now.

Martin said the transportation department was amenable to the change because the sidewalk wasn’t necessary “for highway purposes” and it was an addition to their work requested by the city.

“It wasn’t any part of the department’s decision-making process,” he said Monday. “As far as the department’s concerned, if the city didn’t want it in, that’s all we needed.”

Martin said city officials, who he believed were in charge of the decision, agreed to let the Lucky Garden decide what to do. Walker, though, said the decision fell to the transportation department and Huangs.

“I thought that it was, in order to accommodate the design plans of the owners, a joint decision of MDOT and (the Huangs),” Walker said.

The Lucky Garden was in the news in April when construction barriers blocked off the entrance to parking lot.

Martin said changes to projects on the fly are “not uncommon.” He added that no other business or landowner has altered the project through a complaint, and feedback has been mostly positive.

“I think things have gone well,” he said. “You always have things that pop up, but I think everyone has handled them well when they came up.”

The money allocated in the 2016 resolution has not yet been billed, according to Martin. He said project resident Karen Libby will log all of the work that has been done, and then the city will be billed for the portion that was performed at its request. Martin said he did not think the project was over budget at this point.

Stearns told the Kennebec Journal that he was frustrated about the project being altered because the council resolved in May 2016 to allocate money to a number of projects, including extending the sidewalk to the boat landing.

“We spent a full four years planning for the project, recognizing the difficulty the project would present for businesses and residents,” he said earlier this month, “in exchange, looking for enhancements such that, when the project was complete, we would have fully rebuilt and improved the village.”

Back in May 2016, the council resolved to allocate up to $483,762 — which would “later be refined and formalized” — on “local design elements,” including “two sidewalk extensions … westerly sidewalk lights; and easterly sidewalk lights.”

The city approved $625,000 in April 2017 for its share of the Water Street reconstruction project.

“We on the council had a detailed menu of enhancements that we asked the voters to pay for,” Stearns said. “Street lighting, brick sidewalks, as well as parking, were some of the enhancements council voted to pitch in for.”

The project has undergone some changes and met with adversity even before the resolution was signed. The council approved a number of votes that moved a crosswalk from Dummers Lane to Central Street in March this year, after residents and business owners who thought the crosswalk was unsafe submitted a petition.

Further, Stearns said the council’s 2016 resolution was scrutinized and stood up to that pressure — and a change outside of the resolution’s purview without council votes and public input should not have happened.

“It’s not just a question of doing right by our plan, but also we had to defend our plan as not good enough,” he said. “I think we need to remember that people wanted even more than we asked for.”

Jon Lund, who owns a small sliver of land between the boat landing and the Lucky Garden’s parking lot, also was unhappy about the abandonment of the sidewalk plan. He said he had no resistance to selling the transportation department a small piece of his land to build a sidewalk.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I accepted (the transportation department’s offer) with the expectation of having a sidewalk running through my property.”

Talking about the sidewalk stopping at the restaurant, Lund, a former lawyer, said he was “troubled” that one business’s resistance halted the sidewalk.

“The (Huangs) have a right to require eminent domain be used,” he said. “I’m troubled by the fact that one individual can derail the project.”

Walker said an eminent domain hearing from the restaurant could have taken months and delayed the project, making that option unattractive. Walker said the transportation department is working on another project near the boat landing next year.

“There may be opportunity to look at this again,” he said.

Harvey-McPherson said she was aware of the meetings involving the Huangs, the transportation department and city officials. She said the mayor updated councilors orally during the process.

Walker said in March that he briefed the council on the upcoming meeting with the transportation department and the Lucky Garden “without going into detail.” He added that he updated the council again after the change was finalized.

Meeting minutes from March and April do not show a motion to amend the 2016 resolution or vote on any change to the Water Street project, aside from the aforementioned crosswalk change — which took four votes and a tie-breaking vote from Walker to pass.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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