The town hall meeting room was populated by about 100 Riverside and Old Greenwich residents Tuesday night, with all but one strongly opposed to a 100-ft traffic circle on Sound Beach Ave by Laddins Rock Rd and Harding Rd (by the Perrot Library).
The roundabout project was triggered by necessary upgrades to an adjacent bridge where Sound Beach Ave goes over the Cider Mill Brook.
At the previous public hearing on March 7, Dept of Public Works commissioner Amy Siebert presented to the commission because Jim Michel, the deputy commissioner of DPW, who oversees the project, was unable to attend.
This week Mr. Michel, who has been working on the project since 2012, fielded even more tough questions.
After much discussion, the key issue became whether the roadway over the bridge must be elevated in order for the project to go forward with the state of Connecticut, who would be providing much of the funding.
Even if the traffic circle is not part of the project, if the section of the road must be elevated to raise the bridge, the traffic circle would have to be redone.
Mr. Michel explained that the bridge is currently rated poor and needs to be rebuilt. He said Connecticut’s hydrology manual and town P&Z codes require the bridge be brought into FEMA compliance upon making a major improvement.
He said that after the roadway and traffic circle are elevated, the stone wall outside the Perrot Library would ultimately be just a few inches below the roadway.
Residents said that would create a noisy environment for library patrons and have the effect of “sinking” the library.
Residents also said they feared unintended consequences, including the possibility of basements flooding, traffic passing through the rotary at even faster speeds than at present, risks to pedestrians if crosswalks are relocated closer to the roundabout, the chance that more trucks and traffic head to, or leaving Stamford would use the rotary.
Mr. Michel did say, however that a waiver from raising the roadway over the bridge may be requested from the state, but only if one of three conditions are met: if there is financial hardship, if there are extraordinary right of way concerns, or if it is physically impossible to raise the bridge 8 feet.
Mr. Michel conceded that it is possible to leave the road at its existing grade and raise the bridge. However, he said, “It’s difficult to construct and would require the waiver.”
“If we were to raise the bridge, the majority of the roundabout would need to be raised. You might as well put the whole thing in compliance with FEMA regulations.” – Jim Michel, Deputy Commissioner of DPW
Again and again, for almost three hours, Mr. Michel was asked about the possibility of repairing the bridge while leaving the road at its present grade.
Commissioner Peter Levy suggested re-lining or rebuilding the existing culvert without completely dismantling it.
Mr. Michel said that would be tricky because under the roadway, the bridge has two parts cobbled together over time. He said there both an old box culvert with a center pier, and an actual bridge.
“At this time the structural integrity …there isn’t a good way to rebuild what’s there. It needs to be replaced,” he said.
Another angle to applying for a waiver from the State of Connecticut was discussed. If the area by could be designated scenic or historic, that might result in an alternate path to a waiver.
Longtime Old Greenwich resident Paul Pugliese described the project as a solution looking for a problem and a project looking to fill a budget. Pugliese, a realtor and architect who is president of Greenwich Land Company suggested having the area designated a Scenic Zone.
Pugliese, who chaired the Architectural Review Committee for many years, argued that the roadway and intersection, flanked by two parks and the Perrot Library, form the gateway to the village of Old Greenwich, and is one of the most beautiful spots in town.
“That particular intersection should fit within the scenic zone regulation you currently have in zoning regulations,” he said. “And having the library appearing to be below grade and changing the bridge configuration could cause more water to surge in from the Sound and flood Kitchel Natural Park, the library and Deepwoods Lane.”
In response to Mr. Michel, and previously Ms. Seibert, who both argued that the new rotary would be more safe, neighbors again said on Tuesday night that the accident history is not significant and that bringing crosswalks closer to the a larger, modern roundabout would be less safe. Residents also said they did not agree with DPW that cars would be more inclined to slow down for a large new roundabout, but rather speed around the circle and not be focused on pedestrians.
Many longtime residents said they had no memory of the area of the rotary going under water in a storm.
And, rather than increase safety, which they residents argued was already safe, a large traffic circle might attract even more traffic to and from Stamford, including 18-wheelers.
“Iconic” Perrot Library
Residents returned again and again to the impact of a large elevated traffic circle a stone’s throw from the Perrot Library.
“We checked the height of the wall in front of Perrot Library by the patio. The top is at a 10 ft, 7″ elevation. We’re proposing the center of the roadway at this intersection to be at 11 feet. Just a bit above the top of the wall. It is going to look slightly different,” Mr. Michel commented, causing the member of the public to erupt in laughter. ”
Still, Michel insisted, “It is our opinion it is a necessary requirement to meet FEMA flood requirements.”
He also said the curb line adjacent to the library is not changing, though it was moved i earlier concepts. “We have modified the design since then. All the green space in front of the library is not being eliminated,” he said. “That is in response to comments we’re received.”
Elizabeth Peldunas from the Riverside association said members had recently met and remained concerned about impacts to the Perrot library, which she described as an iconic building.
“You use it as a yardstick to measure developers’ projects. You say our village has these new England colonial characteristics. I’d argue that it is the jewel of Old Greenwich. You should look for a setting that enhances the crown jewel,” Peldunas said to the commission, stirring a round of applause from residents.
Over and over, residents asked if raising the bridge and roadway was good planning.
Rita Baker, a longtime Greenwich resident who has resided at 2 Forest Avenue for 33 years said she is the most directly impacted neighbor to the proposed project.
“If water can’t cross the road, where will the water go?” she asked. “Into the basement of my 140 year old house or into Perrot Library.”
Baker said she did not recall any time other than for downed trees, that emergency vehicles could not get through the area of the rotary during a storm.
Mr. Michel said the Fire Department reported that water had been an issue during Hurricane Sandy, and that as recently as March 2, water was up to the edge of the road.
“It wasn’t on the road, but Binney Park was well under water. In a tidal event, it’ll go in and out, but stay there a couple hours when it’s in,” Mr. Michel said, adding that after extensive study, including six months going back and forth with the Dept of Transportation and a consultant, and going through models to determine which model to utilize, they settled on the FEMA model.
Commissioner Macri asked whether there was anything that could be done in Binney Park to alleviate the flooding and Mr. Michel said additional railroad culverts downstream could alleviate some of the riverine.
“Six X 10 ft dual box culverts going under the railroad would open up a large opening for water tidally going back the other direction,” he said. However, he added that the park would still flood from water coming downstream from the north.
“Even if we drained out the pond prior to a storm, it fills back up within four hours of it raining. It fills back in very quickly,” Mr. Michel said, using the example of the summer dredge project when rains filled the empty pond and it had to be pumped out again.
Allen Lovejoy disagreed. “You can put one-way valves on 3-ft round culverts. They do it all around the world,” he said. “This proposal is ill conceived, not fully vetted and researched even after five years. Please ask for more information and have all questions answered,” he said to the commission.
Mr. Michel repeated several times that the project is only at the 30% design phase and that more modifications will be made as the project is refined and compromises made with all parties involved.
“We will continue to work through the design process with the library to make sure there is no flooding. We have a preliminary report we feel addresses those concerns,” he said.
Town Liability for a Non-Conforming (Smaller) Traffic Circle?
On the question of building a smaller traffic circle, Mr. Michel said, “We follow federal guidelines for consistency for drivers so they have consistent expectations. It has nothing to do with the funding involved in the project.”
Moreover, Michel said that adhering to state and federal guidelines helps the Town to reduce liability.
“If the project is constructed in a non conformist way (with a smaller traffic circle) it can open the town up to liability. It is a factor,” he said.
September Deadline for State Funding
In the end, Mr. Michel said, “the State will fund what is presented to them,” but that the project must be submitted before September 2018.
“In 2012 we got a letter of commitment which means the State finds it acceptable and will fund it upon receipt of final drawings,” he said, likening it to a ‘preliminary approval.’
“We know the state is not in the best condition for transportation funding,” Mr. Michel continued, adding, “The state cannot commit to projects that are not submitted by September.”
Mr. Michel said the town is lucky that the project qualifies for several of the state requirements for grant funding. “It’s a bridge project. A transportation project. A safety project. A resiliency project. Those are all key factors.” He also said the State has set aside funding for the project in the amount of $3.8 million, though the current estimate of the project is $4.9 million. “They said they’d honor and bring the funding up to $4.9 million when we submit the final design plans,” he said.
“We have painted ourselves into a corner with this State money,” said Candace Garthwaite. “Have the BET fix the bridge on the terms of the town, not the State.”
Old Greenwich resident and VP of the Old Greenwich Association Katherine Donnelly warned, “the only place to get free cheese is in a mousetrap.”
Ms. Donnelly said Old Greenwich residents were worried about erosion of property values, fast moving traffic and the desire to maintain the quiet seaside feel of Old Greenwich, which is a draw to many buyers.
“The change to an Autobahn type of entry cannot be reversed,” she said. “And distracted driving is a concern. We shouldn’t have to worry about safe harbors in the middle of rotaries. Raising the roadway three feet will cause flooding some place else. If the water is rerouted, is the unintended consequence that it can be in our basements?”
Accident Data and Comparisons to Other Traffic Circles
Mr. Michel said that while the town does not make a habit of comparing accident data between similar roundabouts, there are two other roundabouts in Greenwich that, like the proposed one for Sound Beach Ave, are 100 ft diameter circles: one by West End Ave/Arch St/Riverside Ave by the viaduct, and the second is by Fawcett place/Milbank/Mason Street.
The commission did not vote on the application, Instead, in leaving the application open, they asked Mr. Michel to re-evaluate the diameter of the traffic circle.
“If a few trucks have to go over the mountable curb, and that’s what it’s for, right?” asked Mr. Maitland, who also asked Mr. Michel to look at the integration of the new bridge with the existing roadways.
“If we could see that, either we’ll disagree or agree the roundabout is better. Can you produce some sketches like that for us?” he asked. “Start simply with raising the bridge and how it would flow into the existing pavement.”
Commissioner Alban suggested Mr. Michel take a look at what other Public Works Departments in historic areas of other municipalities have done with their gateways.
The biggest applause of the night was for commissioner Dennis Yeskey who asked Mr. Michel to investigate whether the State had issued waivers for other projects for historic reasons.
“I can’t believe there aren’t other bridges and facilities in other towns that are historic,” he said.