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Residents raise concerns as Old Lyme sidewalk project moves forward

Old Lyme — Town officials are inching ever nearer to solidifying plans for additional sidewalk improvements in the Sound View neighborhood that they say will improve pedestrian safety on Hartford Avenue and Shore Road, as well as further help connect the community to its beach areas.

After being awarded a state grant to help pay for those improvements in late 2018, the town, through what’s known as the Community Connectivity Grant Committee, has been working toward planning and designing those sidewalk improvements since early 2019 with BSC Group engineers of Glastonbury.

Plans currently include placing 5-feet-wide sidewalk on the western portion of Hartford Avenue from Bocce Lane to Route 156 within the town’s right of way, as well as including a 2.5-foot “utility strip” between the sidewalk and the road to allow for signage and mailbox placement. The town also has included sidewalk plans spanning Route 156 from the Old Lyme Police Station to Cross Lane. The plans are presently being reviewed by the Department of Transportation, which awarded the $400,000 Community Connectivity Grant, for feedback and possible final approval.

The $400,000 grant is earmarked to cover only construction costs associated with the project, while the town is responsible for paying for its engineering and design work. The town approved $30,000 as part of its 2019-2020 budget, and later appropriated an additional $10,000, to cover the costs.

The town was awarded the grant shortly after it had completed a similar sidewalk project on the southern Hartford Avenue earlier in 2018. That project included landscaping, handicapped-accessible sidewalks, improved drainage, bike racks and a bikeway, among other upgrades.

Installing sidewalks now on the upper, unfinished half of Hartford Avenue, selectwoman and Committee Chairwoman Mary Jo Nosal said, will complete the larger vision the town has had in mind for sidewalks along the entire roadway, providing pedestrians with safe access to the beach and bringing more foot traffic to businesses on Hartford Avenue and Route 156.

“The project is a safety project," she said. "We have pedestrians walking in the middle of Hartford Avenue during the summer and it’s really not safe. So we are trying to make it more pedestrian friendly and safe.”

“There is an economic development piece to this, as well,” Nosal continued, describing a larger vision of connecting the greater community to the beach area.

Nosal said the committee soon will finalize the plans before putting together a bid package. She believes the town solicit bids on the project in late fall, with construction set to begin in spring.

Bid prices will determine whether the entirety of the project can be completed at once. BSC Group engineer Kurt Prochorena, who has been designing and engineering the sidewalks with the committee, said at the committee’s last meeting in July that the town may be able to complete the full project within its allotted $400,000.

Nosal said the committee will need to decide which part of the project will be eliminated, should the need arise. She said the sidewalk portion on the upper half of Hartford Avenue will be completed no matter what, while a portion of the Shore Road sidewalk may need to be removed for the project to fall within budget. If bids come in above budget, Nosal said the town may need to seek an additional grant from the state to later finish the project.

Before going out to bid, however, Nosal said the town will host individual information sessions with the more than a dozen Hartford Avenue residents whose properties will directly abut the proposed sidewalk. The committee sent out notices to the homeowners last week to schedule individual meetings with each on Aug. 15 and 22, she said. Homeowners will meet with Prochorena and committee members to voice concerns and be presented sidewalk plans and how the walkways will look in front of their homes.

Concerns raised

Homeowners recently have raised concerns about the project. Presently homeowners on the northern part of Hartford Avenue maintain the town’s right of way, or what now simply appear to be grassy strips of land that directly abut yards, as if it were part of them.

Despite understanding this strip of land is not their property and that the town can use the right of way to install sidewalks, homeowners who recently spoke with The Day said they worry new sidewalks will allow people to walk in close proximity — in same cases mere feet — to the front exterior of their homes, as well as increase flooding issues that already exist on portions of the road and which affect homeowners’ yards and driveways.

In a petition sent to the town last month and which was drafted by Hartford Avenue homeowners Tom and Betsy Portelance, more than a dozen homeowners asked the town to reconsider reducing the proposed width of the sidewalks, arguing 5 feet is too wide and will place sidewalk almost directly underneath front windows and doors.

"This will put a walk-way practically on our front porches or doorsteps and will eliminate any parking on the grassy strip that now exists," the petition says.

Committee members, who were aware of these concerns, said at their last meeting they did not believe the 5-foot width could be reduced, as it is the town and state Department of Transportation’s standard sidewalk width and adequately allows for passing space and Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility, Prochorena had said. He was not immediately available for comment this week.

Nosal said by phone this week the committee has listened to residents' concerns and said the sidewalks will, in fact, improve present flooding issues on the road, directing rainwater toward the road to be caught by catch-basins, rather than properties. She also said the project will improve driveway entrances and level out the right-of-way portion of the road as parts of it are currently uneven.

Committee member and Sound View Commission Chairman Frank Pappalardo said by phone Wednesday, “There are valid concerns, we certainly want to hear them and if there is something we can do to help. I think it’s a matter of people being unaware of the details and once the engineer goes over the details, we hope it will help a lot.”

Pappalardo said the committee has been making efforts, both by mailing notifications over the last year and posting letters in the neighborhood newsletter, to inform residents of the upcoming changes.

The project “will certainly help with pedestrian safety without doubt. A lot of people walk in the street on Hartford Avenue and a lot of people walk on Route 156, to get to the business(es) and that’s even more dangerous,” Pappalardo said. Sidewalks make it "much safer for pedestrians and it will tie the business in with a little easier access.”

First Selectman Tim Griswold, who was present at the committee’s July 24 meeting and who asked if it were possible to make exceptions to the sidewalk width standard, said by phone Wednesday, “I guess we will go through these meetings and hopefully a number will show up and maybe there will be a number of minds changed" about the sidewalk width.

Griswold said DOT will have ultimate jurisdiction over the sidewalk’s width and was not clear under which circumstances the agency would allow changes to its standards.

m.biekert@theday.com

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