MEREDITH — Following a public hearing that began at 6 p.m. and stretched past 10 p.m. Monday night, the Board of Selectmen flatly rejected the recommendation of the Rte. 3/Rte. 25 Advisory Committee to string three roundabouts along the corridor to improve the peak flow of traffic through town.
More than half of between the 400 and 500 people who filled the auditorium of Inter-Lakes High School had left when four of the five selectmen — Carla Horn, who chairs the board, Nate Torr, Peter Brothers and Hillary Seager — voted against a motion to accept the recommendation. Lou Kahn, the fifth selectman who chaired the committee and pitched its report, abstained.
"There is no way to prevent traffic from passing through town except a bypass," Kahn said, adding that was "just something that's not going to happen." He explained that the committee weighed any number of alternatives before recommending the three single-lane roundabouts at Lake Street, the 3/25 intersection and Pleasant Street, which it concluded would not adversely affect adjacent properties while easing without overcoming congestion and improving the movement of pedestrians. He acknowledged that "there is no solution, but insisted the plan represented a significant improvement, particularly at Pleasant Street, where the roundabout would enhance the flow of traffic in and out the Hannaford shopping center.
Don Lyford of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) told residents that the agency was seeking an alternative supported by the town and was echoed by Gene McCarthy of McFarland Johnson, Inc., project manager for the DOT, who stressed that "nothing will be forced on the community".
More than two dozen speakers stepped to the three microphones, all but a handful expressing firm opposition to the plan and virtually all receiving applause from the crowd. Rosemary Landry, who spent the past four weeks mounting a petition drive against the project, presented the Selectboard with the signatures of more than 500 residents in opposition.
Fire Chief Ken Jones ad-libbed when technical problems stalled his 20-minute PowerPoint presentation, stressing that the roundabouts would "handcuff the department" by slowing response times to emergencies. "Speaking of response times," Horn quipped, when the presentation failed to appear on the screen. Jones noted that Stewarts Ambulance Service makes more than 500 trips through the center of Meredith each year, many of which would be slowed by the roundabouts.
One resident presented the selectmen with a critique of the proposal by Steve Pernaw, a engineer well known to planning boards across the state, who was commissioned by a group to evaluate the plan. Pernaw concluded that the roundabouts would not function adequately and have "unintended consequences," warning that it could take hours for the queues of traffic to dissipate.
Former selectman Miller Lovett read a statement urging the Selectboard to brief their counterparts in New Hampton, Holderness, Center Harbor and Moultonborough on the merits bypassing Meredith to the north and urging the board to ask the Lakes Region Planning Commission to undertake a feasibility study.
"It won't work," declared Carl Johnson, Jr., a surveyor, "and it may make it worse. Don't take that risk."
Several residents questioned the wisdom of spending $5 million on a project to address the severe congestion that occurs only on summer weekends. Al Miltner, the owner of Bootleggers, said that the traffic problems in Meredith, like those of other resort communities, were confined to "10 or 12 weekends" and suggested the committee reconsider improving the traffic signals downtown.
Bill Bayard, a longtime member of the Planning Board, was among the few to endorse the plan. He conceded that "it would be very hard to solve this problem," but suggested that the proposal would mitigate the congestion without adversely impacting the town. Another speaker in favor of the plan, describing himself as a member of the "silent minority," said "you have to take some risks" and called the proposal "the best project we can see for now." Both supporters were met with a smattering of applause.
Selectmen Peter Brothers and Nate Torr voiced concern about how the project would affect underground utilities along the corridor. Brothers said that if the project went forward, it should be coordinated with improvements to the water and sewer system and asked if the town could expect any funding for the work. He and Torr noted that the DOT expected to complete the project within three years, but indicated that the town would not be in a position to fund improvements to underground utilities for eight to 10 years.
When Horn asked the selectmen how they wished to proceed, there were several cried of "vote" from those remaining in the auditorium. Brothers said he was no averse to putting the issue to a vote at Town Meeting in March, but Torr said that the Selectboard was elected to make the decision and offered a motion to accept the recommendation of the committee, which Brothers seconded. When Brothersagain suggested deferring to the voters, Kahn interrupted. "Move the question," he said.
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