HALLOWELL — A City Council subcommittee wants to take a closer look at why a sidewalk project was stopped short of what had been planned for nearly two years.

The Highway Committee is convening a fact-finding investigation surrounding a decision made following a March meeting between owners of local restaurant Lucky Garden, and city and Maine Department of Transportation officials that halted a sidewalk a few hundred feet short of the original project plans.

During the committee’s meeting last week, according to Chairperson Lisa Harvey-McPherson, members decided to undertake the query with the people involved in the March meeting to get a better understanding of the decision-making process. In addition to Harvey-McPherson, the other councilors that comprise the committee are Lynn Irish and Michael Frett.

“There’s a lot of interest into what was the role of the city and what was the role of (MDOT),” Harvey-McPherson said on Oct. 24. “As our next step, we want to invite the party of the agreements to have a discussion.”

She said questions raised during the meeting centered on the roles of the negotiating parties, what religious and cultural concerns are present regarding boulders that would have been moved if the original plans had gone forward and legal issues around eminent domain.

The religious and cultural concerns had been previously noted by Harvey-McPherson and Mayor Mark Walker said the entrance is important to buildings in Chinese culture. Lucky Garden employees, however, previously said the project change was to preserve parking space.

Back in March, Walker, City Manager Nate Rudy, State Rep. Charlotte Warren, MDOT Project Manager Ernie Martin and Lucky Garden owners Tony and Annie Huang met to discuss the project. The end result was honoring the Huang’s desire to stop the extension of the sidewalk before it reached the Lucky Garden’s parking lot — where it stopped prior to construction — to maintain space in the lot and preserve the decorative rocks in front of the restaurant.

Martin said the MDOT was OK with the change because the sidewalk was a city-added portion of the contract and the city had the final say. Walker told the Kennebec Journal that he believed it was a joint-decision by the MDOT and the Huangs. City Manager Nate Rudy agreed with Walker’s assessment.

“My impression from being at that meeting was (it) was a negotiation between the property owners and the MDOT,” he said on Oct 24.

Some Hallowell residents, however, were upset the plans had changed.

Former City Councilor Alan Stearns, who served during the planning of the project, said the change meant the project didn’t follow through on a 2016 resolution by the council, which allocated up to $483,762 toward a number of tasks, including sidewalk extensions.

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

Harvey-McPherson told the Kennebec Journal earlier this month that she and the council had been briefed about the meeting with the Huangs by Walker before it happened in March and after the decision was made in April. But on Oct. 24, she said the nature of those briefings was not comprehensive.

“I think enough questions were raised during the highway committee meeting that weren’t necessarily part of the Mayor’s briefing,” she said. “It was a fairly high overview of the agreement that has been reached.”

Those briefings were not mentioned in meeting minutes from March and April.

Harvey-McPherson said that no councilor raised any questions during the vague briefings in March and April because the Council was consumed by the Water Street project as a whole.

“In March, we were consumed with the community interest in crosswalks; we had special meetings about crosswalks,” she said. “Then, the project started and we were concerned about the nature of starting that large project.

“This negotiation with Lucky Garden occurred at a time when we had some (important) aspects of the project,” Harvey-McPherson added. “Until recently, no community questions have come forth.”

Councilor Diano Circo, who attended the Oct. 23 Highway Committee meeting, said his constituents have approached him with concerns about the sidewalk. Regarding Walker’s briefings, Circo said he was not aware of any briefings by the mayor about the negotiations.

He did note he might not have been present at all of the meetings between March and April, and say the briefing could have taken place during one for which he wasn’t there. Of the four City Council meetings in March and April, Circo was only listed as absent for the March 5 one, during which it took four votes to move a crosswalk from Dummers Lane to Central Street.

Circo said he would’ve preferred a more comprehensive briefing, which Walker told the Kennebec Journal he did in March “without going into detail.”

“I would prefer that the council be briefed when there is a material change to a project,” Circo said. “As a general matter, when we’re making a material change to a citywide plan, it would be good that everyone is informed.”

Irish echoed Harvey-McPherson in saying Walker’s briefing was not comprehensive and added it was the view of the committee that they would like a sidewalk extending to the boat landing.

“All that I can really tell you is that the (Committee) would like to see the sidewalk in there,” she said in a Oct. 24 phone call.

Harvey-McPherson said in a Oct. 25 email that the Highway Committee will invite all parties involved in the March meeting to their upcoming meeting in November which has not yet been scheduled.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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