In an unexpected development, voters at the October Special Town Meeting will now make a decision regarding sidewalks on Main Street, although the Selectmen now have decided to seek additional alternatives.
With a 5-0-0 vote on Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen requested that Town Engineer Paul Starratt pursue a pair of variances from the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board regarding sidewalks on Main Street.
The decision continues a debate regarding the construction of sidewalks on Main Street from Depot Street to Tadmuck Road; a construction project proposed in part due to the town simultaneously replacing a 100-year-old water main and repaving Main Street in that area next summer.
Both variances advised Starratt to pursue four foot wide sidewalks, with scattered five by five foot squares on the sidewalk to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act related to sidewalks.
In one variance request, the material requested would be bituminous asphalt. With the other, the material was termed as “pathway,” and could be any type of crushed stone or other material comparable to what might be found in a nature trail, fulfilling a request by Selectman Andrea Peraner-Sweet to pursue alternatives for asphalt after some residents voiced concerns at the Aug. 25 meeting.
Additionally, the Selectmen discussed a last minute citizens’ petition presented by Jennifer Williams, an advocate for creating the town’s disabilities commission. Her petition would seek five foot wide sidewalks on Main Street made of bituminous asphalt.
Williams garnered more 100 signatures of registered voters, a requirement for a citizens’ petition, in less than an hour. The deadline for a petition to come before Special Town Meeting on Oct. 19 was at noon, less than eight hours before the meeting began.
Due to Williams’ petition, no immediate action was taken regarding the sidewalks beyond seeking state variances for the smaller sidewalks and the Selectmen indicated that that even if they receive approval for one or both of the variances, they still might not pursue either four foot sidewalk proposal.
While Chairman Scott Hazelton sought to limit discussion by the Selectmen due to two lengthy prior meetings on the topic, there were still a variety of viewpoints expressed.
Chris Barrett, chairman of the Westford Pedestrian Safety Committee, politely chided the Board of Selectmen for delaying action on sidewalk construction near two schools despite nominal support while seeking the variances.
He also was critical, again partially praising the Selectmen, for what he saw as too much concern for opposition from some of the abutters compared to previous surveys indicating widespread support for sidewalks.
In response, the Selectmen noted that the town faces a variety of capital expenditure needs, with Starratt later citing that these sidewalks would cost four times less than those other sidewalks since construction equipment would already be deployed for the water main and repaving projects.
Additionally, they noted that public support of sidewalks may significantly vary depending on impacts of taxes and possible eminent domain regarding new sidewalk projects.
Williams’ supported sidewalks, but only asphalt sidewalks, noting that other materials can prove difficult for the use of wheelchair users. She indicated that the topography of the street would still make wheelchair use on the sidewalk difficult, but she supported the sidewalk regardless due to safety concerns for families walking in the area.
One other resident supported sidewalks while several opposed the sidewalks, including Main Street Resident Sandy Martinez.
In particular, Martinez was concerned about uncertainty related to potential variations in the sidewalks that would impact her home and those of her neighbors. She also was concerned about Main Street residents being seen in a negative light on social media for opposition to sidewalk proposals.
“I guess we have to get petitions signed if something affects us,” she said.
Starratt told the board that he expects a decision from the Architectural Access Board within three weeks. He also told the board that any decision regarding sidewalks would be needed by Oct. 20, one day after Town Meeting, in order to include them for next spring’s construction schedule.
CORRECTION: Williams is a member of the Pedestrian Safety Committee, not the Commission on Disability, although she spearheaded efforts to create the Commission on Disability earlier this year.