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As Union sidewalk saga ends, what happens now?

By Christine Simmonds | Dec 01, 2020

Union — The town of Union has voted down the controversial sidewalk project, costing the town an estimated $82,000. It is unclear exactly what this means for the future of sidewalks in Union, but it has sparked concern about pedestrian safety and continuing conflicts in town.

The sidewalk would have been funded by a $400,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation. Additional funding was to come from the sidewalk reserve account and the Public Works budget. Town officials said this project would not raise taxes.

The cost of the work completed so far will still be covered from these accounts without raising taxes.

Town Manager Jay Feyler said another town in Maine will now receive the grant instead, and would be thanking Union for it.

Board of Selectmen Chairman John Shepard said the results of the vote were frustrating because of the costs, time and energy put into the project.

Shepard said the Board of Selectmen was always working with the best intentions, and thought they had voter support for the project. “It’s fair to say that we learned a lesson from this,” he said.

Greg Grotton, a Union resident who was a member of the Board of Selectmen when the project started, said he was quite discouraged by the vote. He felt the project would have been beneficial to the town.

“I think Union is missing out on an incredible opportunity,” Grotton said. “It’s a lot of money for nothing.”

As a child, Grotton said he walked the original sidewalks on Depot Street. “I would have loved to have seen one of my grandchildren walking the same sidewalks,” he added.

Shepard said while the town does not have the sidewalk, it does have the engineering studies, and could use those to help with future sidewalk projects.

Feyler agreed the engineering studies were valuable, but expressed concern that by the time another sidewalk project comes to the town, they could be outdated.

Feyler also added that the vote resulted in a loss of $400,000 of free infrastructure for the town.

Opposition to the sidewalk has pointed to a request put before the board in November of 2019 to stop the project until a vote could be held. They say if the project was stopped then, the town would owe MDOT less money.

That request was not a legal petition, however, and Feyler said some signatures included were not voters or residents of Union. Because of this, the board took no action at the time.

The work also had to continue at that point to create a plan to be voted on. “It would be impossible to come to voters and ask for a sidewalk or trail project without some details,” he said. In November 2019, the town did not know exactly where the sidewalk would be located or how many trees would be removed.

A second petition was presented to the board in January 2020 to bring the matter before the town for a vote at Town Meeting. This petition had a confirmed 180 Union voter signatures, which met the requirements for the item to be placed as a warrant item.

This second petition was also identified by the town attorney as not legal. The Union residents who circulated the petition were not registered voters in Union.

While the board dismissed the petition itself, they did still add the sidewalk as a warrant item for the November election. Shepard said the amount of opposition the board heard indicated a need to put it to a vote.

The results of that vote in November appear to have changed the mandate from Union voters.

The sidewalk project began with three surveys sent to Union residents in 2016 meant to gauge priorities for the 2017 Comprehensive Plan and projects moving forward.

An entire section on improving recreational opportunities was written into the Comprehensive Plan, citing survey responses with support for sidewalks in the village area and walking trails.

The item voted on in November was phase one, which was the building of the sidewalk along Depot Street. The wording of the vote was “to continue with phase one of the sidewalk improvements project.”

The next phases of the project would have created recreational walking trails that connected to the sidewalk.

Feyler views the vote as putting a stop to all phases of this project, including the walking trails.

Board member Martha Johnston-Nash said she felt the mandate was misunderstood in the first place. She said the survey results indicated people wanted walking trails, not sidewalks.

Johnston-Nash also said some people voted against the project because they did not agree with how the matter was handled, and were not against the sidewalk itself.

“One thing I’ve heard so much about the previous board was that they were not open with what they were doing,” she said.

Johnston-Nash was not sure if she would try to move forward with a walking trail project, but it was important that any such project moving forward be transparent and have voter support.

Since there will not be a sidewalk project, there has been concern about pedestrian safety.

Shepard said he thought the sidewalk would have been a win-win for the town. “It’s terrible how fast people drive on that road,” he said of Depot Street.

Feyler said the sidewalks would have attracted younger families looking to move to town, as well as providing a safe walking space that was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities act.

“Yes, younger people can walk in the woods and trails, but middle (aged) and older people need a safe sidewalk that is ADA compliant,” he said. “Currently, there is no safe place for a handicapped person to use in Union.”

Grotton also expressed concern about the safety of a lack of sidewalks. “Someone is going to get hurt,” he said. “I’m afraid that’s going to happen.”

Grotton added that a crosswalk would have been part of the sidewalk project, and now there are no crosswalks on that road.

Grotton also said the roads are not wide enough for the big logging trucks that drive on it, often at high speeds and without stopping. He said he would likely be contacting Augusta as a private citizen regarding the safety of Depot Street.

The project appears to have created ongoing conflict in the town as well.

The Board of Selectmen started releasing newsletters in October, called “Board of Selectmen Sidelines.” Three newsletters have been written so far, and all three mentioned the conflict that has come from the sidewalk issue, including personal attacks on social media platforms and in person.

The most recent newsletter, dated Nov. 25, contains a plea from the entire board to put differences aside and focus on the future.

“We request that all parties stop the attack language. We understand we have just experienced a controversial vote on the sidewalks, and feelings can be raw… Let’s all take time to heal and be grateful for what we have in this lovely small town of exceptional beauty.”

Johnston-Nash said she thought some of the tension was a result of pandemic fatigue. “It’s been a long time and it’s not over yet,” she added.

Johnston-Nash suggested that people use the holiday season to take a step back and treat others kindly.

“It really hurts me to think that there are people that would carry on bad feelings because of that vote,” she said. “We are all having issues that trigger us emotionally. But we cannot let them become reason to act out against someone else.”

She emphasized that the board has been focused on letting residents know they will be heard, and on setting a good example of civil and communicative discourse.

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Comments (7)
Posted by: Norma Hunt | Dec 03, 2020 19:45

Mr. Grotton, let's do it your way.

Provable fact, the sidewalks that were in place on Depot St. 150 years ago are not there now.

Provable fact, the sidewalk on Depot St, across from the Methodist church is a sidewalk to nowhere, thank you for not disputing that fact I made earlier.  It is in disrepair and has been for more than the 2 years you are stating.  I took photos of that area today when I was in town for work. If you were so concerned about wanting your grandchildren to walk the same sidewalks you walked then maybe the Town should have maintained them better.

Provable fact, Depot St. was widened back in the late 70's, early 80's, of this century.  By doing this, the road was made safer for citizens and those logging trucks you are so worried about.

Provable fact, had Christine Simmonds truly done the research and homework that Stephanie Turner is claiming she did, then she would have interviewed people on both sides of the story, not just those in favor of the sidewalk.

Provable fact, a sidewalk should have a destination.  There are four roads off of the Common area in Union.  Only one, poorly maintained, sidewalk goes from the Common to the current Town Office.  When the backroom projects were being thought up you should have chosen a sidewalk that went to the Nazarene Church/Old Town Hall.  You should have chosen a sidewalk that went from the Common to the Union Fairgrounds entrance.  Those sidewalks would have served a better purpose than one going nowhere.

My last, but not least, Provable Fact, one that all of you sitting in that backroom should have thought of before you even applied for the money to do this sidewalk project is were taking on the Legend of Union known as Janice Linscott.  Anyone with any common sense should know better than to even think about doing that.

Posted by: STEPHANIE TURNER | Dec 03, 2020 13:47

Well written article by Christine.  She did her research and homework for factual reporting.  How helpful  this could have been over past few years! We can have a Dollar General but, we can’t have sidewalks.  This was a huge deal for the town.  We are all moving on.   But, when battles are fought with high emotions there are bound to be casualties.   Life

Posted by: Gregory S Grotton | Dec 03, 2020 09:52

Not worth arguing I will just say this, there are pic's all the way back to when it was wooden sidewalks (late 1800''''s) and the existing sidewalk was maintained up until a couple years ago...facts Ms Hunt....Provable Facts....believe what you want but don't continue to mislead the public, this is the problem we have today. End of Story.

Posted by: Norma Hunt | Dec 02, 2020 18:46

Greg, how long ago was that sidewalk going to the factory?  I'm pretty sure that sidewalk didn't go to the factory back in the 80's.  As matter of fact, it was a sidewalk that went nowhere, kind of like the one you all proposed. Not to mention the fact that back as far as the 80's the Town didn't upkeep what it had in town for sidewalks.  Based on that history it's no wonder that residents were skeptical of the Town stating it was going to maintain and upkeep sidewalks.  It's too bad that all of you that are in favor of that sidewalk are treating the residents of Depot St. so poorly because they would like to keep their yards, trees, and front porches.  That entire road and common area used to be the nicest place to grow up and live. Everyone looked out for each other and their kids, whether they agreed with their point of view or not.   I can remember how much we all lost for land when they widened that area of the road.   It's really easy for someone to propose a project that means folks are losing land, trees, etc. when they aren't the ones losing out.  It's also easy for those in power to make backroom deals and not be transparent in their dealings with the residents they are supposed to represent.

Posted by: Gregory S Grotton | Dec 02, 2020 17:27

There are pictures of it going to the factory at the historical center....

Posted by: Gregory S Grotton | Dec 02, 2020 17:26

The problem is....a certain part time resident doesn't want anyone walking or stepping on their lawn or driveway....and the sidewalk went down to the factory....

Posted by: Norma Hunt | Dec 02, 2020 13:32

I grew up on Depot St.  The only sidewalk that has ever been there is about 50 feet long and across from the Methodist Church.  The logging trucks have been using that road forever without an issue.  Do those trucks speed on Depot St? Yes, but so does everyone else.  Maybe if, before agreeing to this project, you had had the common courtesy to ask the residents that live on that section of Depot St. what they thought about it, this could have all been avoided.  That sidewalk would have been right up to, or damn close to, the front doors of most of the houses along that road.  Growing up on that road we didn't need a sidewalk.  We followed the rules of the road and if we had to move over we just went onto the grass of whatever house we were in front of and the moved back off of it.  Simple common sense and respect.

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