WESTMORE — Things are not going as planned for Forest, Parks and Recreation (FPR)’s proposed project at the south end of Lake Willoughby.
Following years of serious work on a proposal to majorly upgrade the popular FPR-owned land, construction was almost in sight.
Four state permits needed for the project have either been approved or will be shortly. The last piece needed is a conditional use permit from the Westmore zoning board. However, the hoped-for permit approval on Jan. 28 did not occur.
The zoning board started a public hearing on the permit on Dec. 16. The hearing was “continued” to Jan. 28 and, now, will be continued again on March 25 at 6 p.m.
Zoning board members, as well as the interested public, are concerned that the FPR project won’t fully address issues at and around the site. And, well, it can’t.
FPR is only able to control the land they own and what they are able to negotiate with the Agency of Transportation (VTrans). However, site-related issues extend up and down Route 5A … literally.
The main issue is visitors parking and walking on Route 5A to access the south end due to the existence of only one small lot.
Among other changes, FPR hopes to construct three gravel parking lots.
However, they know that won’t solve everything. FPR can’t stop cars from parking on Route 5A nor create a sidewalk on its edge.
Lou Bushey, stewardship forester with FPR’s St. Johnsbury District who has been overseeing the land for years, has been directing parking concerns to the Westmore select board as they are better able to work with VTrans.
On Jan. 19, the select board decided to write a letter to VTrans at the request of the town’s planning commission.
According to minutes from the Jan. 19 meeting, the letter will ask for a preliminary study, including a traffic study, to be conducted to address the overflow parking situation at the south end. The letter may also include requests for “no parking” signs to be installed along both sides of Route 5A and a pedestrian walkway be established on the west side of 5A for safety.
The select board will discuss and potentially sign the letter to VTrans during their meeting today at 4 p.m. at the municipal building.
At the Jan. 28 meeting, Bushey pointed out that the select board requested a traffic study be done three or four years ago to look at the speed limit. VTrans’ response was: “what’s there is what the highway warrants.”
FPR has been able to negotiate a seasonal 35 mph speed limit around the site, down from 50 mph in the off-season and surrounding area.
However, that is not enough to address issues of people parking and walking on the road.
Bushey and Tom Hand, landscape architect with SE group and primary lead on design development for the FPR project, understand the concerns, but had hoped that the project could be approved while the select board worked with the Agency of Transportation.
“We realize there are issues on the highway, but that is not within the jurisdiction of Forest, Parks and Recreation,” said Bushey on Jan. 28. “We will do whatever we can to support the community, we will do whatever we can to push from our side on the Agency of Transportation to make those improvements, but at this point that is definitely outside the scope of our project and also out of our control, so I don’t how we can loop that stuff into our conversation.”
“Really the parking issues that your concerns are about are with VTrans and the select board,” Melissa Zebrowski, town clerk, reiterated to the public. “It’s really important that you speak with them about that [and the pedestrian walkway] because they’re the ones that are going to be talking to VTrans.”
Hand believes it may take longer than 60 days for the select board to resolve issues with VTrans.
“We’re recognizing that the conversation between VTrans and the town does relate heavily to the project that FPR is proposing, but it’s almost an entirely separate project, especially the road edge sidewalk,” he said. “We’d love to bring a totally complete plan that everyone is 100 percent happy with, but we are trying to provide some proposals for work that can happen within the lands FPR controls. We’ve [even] gone beyond their control in terms of the improvements that we’ve provided within the right-of-way currently through extensive negotiation with AOT as part of the access permit.”
However, board members including Chair Louisa Dotoli think 60 more days will at least give them some clarity.
Following an hour and a half of discussion, the meeting ended with a resolution to wait until March 25 to discuss FPR’s project further.
“It may be possible that we won’t have a final resolution [from the select board on March 25], but I think that we may have enough direction that it would be of assistance to the board in rendering a decision on this,” said Dotoli. “Based on the concerns that have been stated, I think we owe it to the applicant and members of the public to pursue this and gather what information we can and then, if we don’t have a final resolution of it in 60 days, we’ll address it at that time.”
Bushey had hoped to start logging work on the project this winter, but work will now have to wait at least until after March 25.
The FPR changes would include the three new gravel parking lots, as well as upgrades to unsafe trails and composting toilets, the Caledonian previously reported. It would also include staff to manage the site during construction, as well as following the improvements.