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October 16, 2017 Focus: Midcoast and Downeast

With MDOT's $5M proposal, Wiscasset's downtown is at a crossroads

Renderings / Courtesy Maine Department of Transportation MDOT plans call for adding traffic signals, loading areas, landscaping and amenities, at the town's expense. Both views are from a vantage point just downhill of Red's Eats.
Photo / Jim Neuger Marian Anderson, Wiscasset town manager, with the town's only traffic light in background.
Photo / Jim Neuger Brad Sevaldson, left, and Greg Uthoff, owners of the BIRCH home accessories boutique in Wiscasset.

It's an impasse in all senses of the word: Wiscasset business owners worried about losing storefront downtown parking are growing more vocal as the Maine Department of Transportation presses on with a controversial, taxpayer-funded $5 million plan to ease traffic congestion.

The biggest bone of contention is the planned removal of all parking spots on Main Street, which is also U.S. Route 1, and is home to Red's Eats and a dozen or so art and antique shops and the cornerstone of a historic district. The plan calls for removing 51 spaces during peak season, July through mid-September, including 25 diagonal spaces on Main Street, and creating 84 new ones on neighboring streets.

Despite the net gain in spaces promised by MDOT, a number of shopkeepers don't want to lose parking at their doorstep.

“For us it would be terrible,” laments Keith Oehmig, co-owner of the Wiscasset Bay Gallery with his wife, Cordelia, for more than 30 years. “It would be the end of downtown.”

MDOT's Wiscasset Route 1 Downtown Pedestrian Safety and Mobility Improvement Project aims to alleviate bottlenecks on U.S. Route 1, the midcoast's main artery. A well-frequented route especially in summer, it traverses the Sheepscot River and is known as Main Street in Wiscasset.

Besides shifting parking away from Main Street, the Maine Department of Transportation aims to widen sidewalks and upgrade them with new bricks, disabled-access ramps and amenities still to be decided from bollards to benches, install traffic lights and turn-out lanes at intersections. Much to the ire of historic preservationists, it also plans to tear down Haggett's Garage, an early 20th-century building on Water Street currently occupied by the Midcoast Conservancy, to put up a parking lot. Citing eminent domain, DOT bought Haggett's from Coastal Enterprises Inc. earlier this year for $403,500, preventing Midcoast Conservancy from exercising its option to buy the building.

Photo / Jim Neuger
Keith Oehmig, co-owner of the Wiscasset Bay Gallery.

That brings to $768,000 what DOT has spent to date on a project that's the subject of pending litigation brought by a local property owner, has been rejected twice by the town's selectmen despite their initial approval, and prompted a group calling themselves Citizens for Sensible Solutions to run an angry full-page ad in early October in three local newspapers.

The ad demands that the MDOT open an “honest” dialogue with all Wiscasset citizens, support small businesses by keeping storefront parking, return Haggett's Garage to the community and find solutions that don't waste tax dollars. “MDOT, citizens run the government,” says an orange roadblock. “Come back to the table and talk. Let's make a better plan.”

The debate could turn ugly, and political. Selectmen voted unanimously Oct. 3 to request a meeting with Gov. Paul LePage and David Bernhardt, Maine's transportation commissioner, while legislation introduced by state Sen. Dana Dow directs MDOT not to remove the on-street parking and work with citizens to come up with “less destructive and less expensive” solutions.

Ron Phillips, CEI's former president and CEO who lives in Waldoboro but is a regular at Wiscasset town meetings, says that while there's more hope now the agency can be stopped, it would be unprecedented.

“I'm not aware of all the instances in Maine where there has been a reversal, let alone a stop of an MDOT project,” Phillips says. “It can be done, but it is an unusual occurrence.”

The long and winding road

Main Street has changed quite a bit from the late 19th century, when there were 11 grocers, two apothecaries, three fancy and dry goods stores, two hardware stores, four dressmakers, two hairdressers, a telephone company, a telegraph office, an American Express office and several banks.

Today on Main Street, there's a mix of historic charm and commerce. The sign into town welcomes visitors to the “prettiest village in Maine,” listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Newer shops include a popcorn store in a former ice-cream parlor, and a home furnishings and gift shop called BIRCH that's a favorite of Marian Anderson, the town's manager.

“We have some folks that are new to our business community and they've brought some new energy and new ideas, so that's been great for the community,” says Anderson, who grew up in Richmond and became Wiscasset's town manager three and a half years ago. She recalls discussions about Wiscasset traffic going back about 40 years, and says the town has listened to residents' concerns over the Route 1 project in what she underscores has been a transparent and inclusive process.

“The remarkable part of it all is that the dialogue has stayed very respectful,” she says. “That's important because all the voices have been heard, but everybody is still listening.” At the same time she oozes enthusiasm about MDOT's pledge to fix and widen Main Street sidewalks using red bricks by Morin Brick Co. in Auburn, put in stoplights to “help with pedestrian coordination,” and make the whole downtown more pedestrian-friendly.

Anderson also notes that MDOT has tweaked its plan to include drop-off and loading zones “so that folks can drop off family members with small children or pick up a larger item they might purchase at an art gallery.” But she admits: “Change is difficult and you always hope it's going to be positive, but it remains to be seen. We don't know.”

Two referenda and counting

Two years in a row, voters have been asked to weigh in on the MDOT plan. A non-binding referendum in June 2016 asked voters to choose between three options: Keep on-street parking (Option 1), remove downtown parking (Option 2) or do nothing (Option 3). Option 2 won out, garnering 426 votes, while Option 1 received 90 votes and Option 3 received 206 votes.

After DOT decided to use state rather than federal funds to pay for the project, the Taxpayers Alliance gathered signatures for a second, binding referendum this summer on the changed Option 2. Besides putting a bigger burden on taxpayers, the group was concerned that the decision to use state rater than federal funds to pay for the project unilaterally removed previously promised compliance with federal historic preservation standards, according to spokesman Bill Sutter.

“When MDOT announced they were not going to use federal funds, my first impression was we've been had,” Sutter says, underscoring that Wiscasset remains a blue-collar town and also lost its biggest taxpayer in 1996 when the Maine Yankee nuclear plant closed.

Besides putting a heavier financial burden on taxpayers, MDOT's decision not to use federal funding would exempt the project from compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. Historic preservation concerns were further rattled by the agency's use of eminent domain for Haggett's Garage.

In the June 2017 Taxpayer Alliance-led referendum, voters rejected the changed Option 2 by a tally of 400 to 323, followed a week later by the selectmen withdrawing their support in a 3-2 vote. During a well-attended regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 2, the Select Board again split 3 to 2, approving a motion to reject MDOT's Main Street parking-removal plan.

MDOT staying the course

Despite the latest development, MDOT still plans to develop a new parking lot later this year and start road construction in 2018.

“Maine DOT worked through a significant collaborative planning process with the Town of Wiscasset, culminating in the Select Board's unanimous endorsement just over a year ago, of the project being delivered,” DOT spokesman Ted Talbot says via e-mail. “After receiving that unanimous support and direction, Maine DOT is now well along in the development of the project with construction just months away.”

MDOT's plan comes several years after it rejected building a bypass after concluding it would be too expensive, at an estimated $100 million, and require the displacement of 26 residences and 14 businesses.

“Since eliminating the bypass option in 2011, Maine DOT has continued to work with the community to develop less costly ways to increase safety and reduce the tremendous backups experienced in Wiscasset,” Talbot says.

This November, Wiscasset voters will decide whether the town's Historic Preservation Ordinance establishing the Historic District Commission should be scrapped. Maine Preservation has put the Historic District Commission and the downtown on its endangered list.

Main Street shopkeepers, including long-timers, are already talking about leaving town if they lose their on-street parking, albeit reluctantly. “It's a last resort for us having been here for so long,” says Wiscasset Bay Gallery's Oehmig. Next door at the Old Carriage House gallery, James Kochan is holding off on buying other downtown properties and talking about “pulling up stakes” a few months after moving from Fredericksburg, Md.

It's a different story across the street at BIRCH, where co-owner Brad Sevaldson couldn't be more upbeat about having more parking spaces in town. “We are so for it,” he says in between packing up holiday trinkets for a customer. “It's better to have no parking than to see someone feel like all the spaces are taken.” He notes that parking around the corner wouldn't be much farther than at a typical shopping mall and is thankful for the foot-traffic spillover from Red's Eats. “It shows that people are re-discovering downtown.”

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