July 19, 2018

Chester Committee Drops Plan for Main Street North Side Sidewalk as Town is Awarded $1 Million Grant for Library Project

CHESTER— In an abrupt change of plans, the Main Street Project Committee voted Tuesday to drop plans for a continuous north side sidewalk as part of the Main Street East reconstruction project. The decision came as town officials learned Monday that Chester has been awarded a $1 million state grant for construction of a new library at North Quarter Park, the 22-acre town park that would have been served by the proposed north side sidewalk.

The Main Street Project Committee, working with engineers Kent & Frost Associates of Mystic, last March recommended the continuous north side sidewalk as part of the Main Street East plan to reconstruct 1,800 feet of Main Street from the intersection with Middlesex Avenue (Route 154) west to the vicinity of the Laurel Hill Cemetery. The plan drew a mixed response at an April 22 public information meeting, with some residents objecting to removal of two mature maple trees along the section of street, while others agreed a sidewalk was necessary, particularly if the town pursues construction of a new library at North Quarter Park.

The plan also drew strong objections from Jeff and Comer Gates, property owners at 137 Main Street, who contended the sidewalk would be too close to the front of their house. The board of selectmen later endorsed the plan with the north side sidewalk, and directed engineers to prepare design plans that included it. Officials were hoping to put the project out to bid this winter.

But earlier this fall, selectmen learned the total cost of the project would be about $1.3 million, exceeding the approximately $1,154,000 in available funding that included  $780,000 in state Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) grants, and $374,000 in set aside town capital funds. Engineers were reviewing the plans for possible cost savings as the board of selectmen last week scheduled a Dec. 9 town meeting to vote on authorizing a release of the $374,000 in set aside town funds for the project. The Gates’s continued to oppose the plan, posting a large sign on the front of their property calling for removal of the continuous north side sidewalk to save money.The board of finance at a Nov. 20 meeting expressed concerns about the approximate $150,000 funding gap, and tabled a any decision on authorizing release of the town funds.

As the Main Street Project Committee convened Tuesday evening, Chairman Michael Joplin announced that he would recommend scaling back the project to include only the area from the intersection with School Lane west to the parking area at the entrance to Laurel Hill Cemetery, deferring any work east of School Lane including a continuous north side sidewalk. Joplin said the reluctance of the finance board top approve release of the town funding indicated the plan could face opposition, and possible rejection, by voters at the Dec. 9 town meeting. He said a town meeting defeat could jeopardize the state grant funding that is needed for the project.

Other committee members, and First Selectman Edmund Meehan, reluctantly agreed. Meehan said the plans for a continuous north side sidewalk could be “pulled off the shelf,” and revisited when the town is closer to completing final plans for a new library at North Quarter Park. The committee later voted to direct project engineers to revise the plans to focus on the segment west of School Lane, along with some limited, and possibly temporary, improvements to roadway from School Lane east to Route 154.

Meehan said Wednesday the board of selectmen would discuss the Main Street East Project, and the proposed new library, further at its Dec. 2 meeting. The selectmen over the summer appointed a library building committee that has hired a Pawtucket, R.I. firm, Lerner, Lads & Bartells, to prepare preliminary plans for a new 5,600-square-foot library on the front section of North Quarter Park.

Meehan said the terms of the $1 million grant require the town to approve full funding for a library project within three years. He said the grant is only expected to cover about a quarter of the total cost for a new library, with an authorization of town bonding funds and private fundraising expected to be needed for the plan for a new library to move forward.

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