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Residents want road closed

Impassioned pleas for closing Brattleboro’s steepest street receive a ‘no’

BRATTLEBORO—Residents of Strand Avenue, one of the narrowest and steepest streets in Brattleboro, pleaded with the Selectboard on July 16 to close its upper portion to all but foot and bicycle traffic.

The residents said they expected road and retaining wall repairs would result in increased traffic through their beloved neighborhood. Also, in a July 12 letter to the board, they questioned the expense of $314,000 for repairs against closing the road, which they said would save the town maintenance and plowing expenses.

The board declined the request.

“I hear your concerns,” said Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein. “It’s a great neighborhood. [But Strand Avenue] is a public road.”

Strand Avenue branches off Highlawn Road, connecting Western Avenue to Williams Street, which runs along the Whetstone Brook.

According to a letter signed by six residents, the small neighborhood is also known as “Swedeville,” named for the Swedish woodworkers who lived there and worked for Estey Organ. It includes a decommissioned Swedish Evangelical Church built in 1894.

The road has been closed to through traffic during repairs to two retaining walls where Strand meets Highlawn Road. One retaining wall holds an upper bank back from the road. A lower wall holds the road in place. The project calls for widening the upper part of the road by two feet, allowing cars to pass each other.

Director of Public Works Steve Barrett said his department suggested closing the road in 2006 during public meetings about the retaining walls.

According to Town Manager Barbara Sondag, the process for repairing the walls started in 2006, when they were seen to start failing. Over three years, the repair project traveled through the Town Traffic Safety and Control Committee, received a preliminary design, and appeared before Town Meeting, where members approved an initial $180,000 for the project.

The Traffic Safety Committee opted not to close the road in 2007, Sondag said.

Sondag said the town requires vehicle access to the road to maintain municipal water lines.

Liza King, who lives with Richard Neumann in the former church, said to her knowledge none of the Strand Avenue residents wanted the road open to through traffic.

“We have never been in favor of the road being open since the topic was brought up,” she said.

“Swedeville” is a special neighborhood appreciated by the people who live there and by the people who walk Strand Avenue, she said.

Repairing and widening the road, however, would likely encourage more people to drive the road at higher speeds, King said.

The road is slippery in winter, she said. In the late 1980s a town plow slid there and hit the church.

“Keep the road open, but at what cost?” said King, adding that increased traffic could change the character of the neighborhood.

“Can we stop and look at what is happening to this neighborhood?” she said.

King asked the board to consider stopping work there while the town considered its options.

Neumann added, “I’m really hurt by the whole thing. We’re going to have to move away.”

“We’re considering it [too],” King jumped in.

Other residents who spoke echoed King and Neumann’s sentiments, and urged the town to either close the road or halt work to allow time for research on alternatives.

“Strand Avenue is on the verge of losing much of its beauty” because of the road changes, said resident Ainslie Gilligan.

Barrett described the very steep and winding Strand Avenue, and the area of Crosby, West, and Williams streets, as “four bad ways in and four bad ways out.”

Putting together all the pieces on a project like this has been a long, difficult process, he said.

Barrett said he has received emails from other neighbors who are happy Strand Avenue will reopen.

Barrett pointed out that when Tropical Storm Irene nearly destroyed Williams Street two years ago, Strand Avenue served as a way out.

Gartenstein, who also serves on the Traffic Safety and Control Committee, thanked the residents for their feedback on the project.

He said that none of the routes around Strand Avenue was optimal. The intersection of Crosby and Williams streets is also dangerous. Diverting more traffic down Crosby if Strand Avenue is closed is not a good solution.

Ultimately, Gartenstein said, the process of dealing with traffic issues starts with the Traffic Safety Committee. The committee already decided to keep Strand Avenue open to traffic.

Although he supported keeping a closer watch on the construction project, Gartenstein did not favor revisiting closing Strand Avenue or halting construction.

“We’ve got retaining wall problems all around town,” he said.

Construction blues

Strand Avenue residents Lawrence Williams and Eva Shelby, whose property abuts the lower retaining wall, raised concerns about the construction project itself.

Williams said the project demonstrated “an obvious lack of oversight,” and dinged it for a lack of integrity and communication as well.

He noticed the blocks were undersized, and expressed concern over the concrete the contractor had piled against the lower wall to keep the ground from “blowing out.” The wall also appeared to be two feet closer to the couple’s house than originally outlined in meetings with the DPW.

He asked the board to remove the undersized blocks, remove granite slabs left on the couple’s deck, and ensure the wall’s correct distance from the house.

The board agreed to do so.

Sondag explained that questions arose about the size of the concrete blocks used in the lower wall three weeks prior. Construction halted, allowing the engineering firm to look into the issue. They determined 20-inch blocks were needed. Work is set to resume when contractors receive the appropriately sized blocks.

Sondag added that the project is on track to meet its Oct. 30 deadline, and the error will incur no additional town expense.

Barrett said the contractor thought it had the correct blocks for the retaining wall: “They felt that what they were doing was approved,” he said, adding the contractor had acted on good faith.

That said, the department bore some responsibility for the construction confusion. “We’re spread a little thin and we’re not there every day,” he said.

The Strand Avenue construction plan itself received a lot of scrutiny, said Barrett.

Selectboard member Donna Macomber thanked the residents for bringing their concerns before the board. She reiterated that the board understood the compelling nature of the residents’ request to have the road closed.

“It matters to the board how you experience your homes and neighborhood,” Macomber said.

She also said she hoped the residents understood the board’s stance, and that the “Swedeville” residents would keep the board apprised of their concerns as the project continues.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #213 (Wednesday, July 24, 2013).

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