Landscaping Discussion Highlights Remaining Divisions Over West Chatham Plan

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: West Chatham , Traffic

An artist's rendition of landscaping options for West Chatham, produced by an ad hoc citizens' committee. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM — Though there seems to be plenty of common ground when it comes to the landscaping and lighting needs for the new West Chatham Route 28 corridor, deep divisions remain about the underlying traffic plan.

The board of selectmen heard a report from the planning board and historic business district commission last Tuesday about proposed landscaping and lighting options for the roadway, which is slated for a major reconfiguration in 2018. While the $2.7 million traffic plan calls for the elimination of the center turning lane and the installation of roundabouts at George Ryder Road and Barn Hill Road, last week's session was to focus on the project's aesthetics, lighting and greenery.

Selectmen had asked the planning board and HBDC to study the state's proposal for landscaping and hardscaping, collect public input on those plans and return to present recommendations. Planning Board Chairman Peter Cocolis was preparing to deliver that report when Selectman Amanda Love made a motion to table the topic.

“Town meeting voted against this project,” Love said, referring to a nonbinding petition article that narrowly passed in 2013 directing selectmen to abandon the project. She said the board of selectmen at the time was wrong to continue pursuing it.

Acting as board chairman, Selectman Cory Metters acknowledged that the project is divisive, but said the discussion about landscaping is necessary, if and when the traffic project is completed. The town can take a hands-off approach, “and we'll get the bare minimum” when it comes to landscaping and other features, he noted.

Selectman Seth Taylor, who also opposes the project, made a motion to receive and accept the report without discussion. The motion failed, so Cocolis was allowed to deliver the report.

Speaking for his board and the HBDC, Cocolis said the members of the public who attended two meetings and sent written comments generally favored a plan with trees planted on both sides of the road in places that don't obstruct signs or motorists' sight lines. The public also liked the idea of using low-maintenance native species, with low vegetation in the roundabouts, rather than the pitch pine trees recommended by the state. The planning board and HBDC both largely agreed with those positions.

They also concurred with the public that the street lights proposed by the state would be too bright and too high for the area, and that dimmer, more pedestrian-scaled lights would be better.

Cocolis said the boards agreed that crosswalks and sidewalks should be clearly distinguishable from the roadway, but there was less agreement on the suggestion that brick pavers or stamped asphalt be used for these surfaces.

“This is not Faneuil Hall Marketplace,” Selectman Dean Nicastro said. “I personally lean toward plain asphalt.”

Taylor said the character of the area should come from the individual properties along the roadway rather than from others. He urged state officials to follow the input of abutters. If abutters didn't turn out in large numbers to comment on the landscape plan, it is because they have given up in frustration, Taylor said.

Metters said the roadway reconfiguration is not, at its heart, a beautification project. If additional aesthetic improvements are needed, beyond what would be funded in the project budget, those improvements might be postponed.

“We're going to need some numbers on maintenance costs,” Nicastro added.

Resident Bill Tuxbury asked for acknowledgment that many people oppose the traffic plan and therefore would not offer landscaping recommendations “to a project they do not want.”

But resident Rick Leavitt argued that the traffic plan, and also the trees bordering the road, help achieve the town's goal of slowing traffic through the area. In its official project request, the town sought designs to support a 25 mph speed limit through the village, though the state ultimately proposed a 35mph design. Landscaping, hardscaping and trees “will have the effect of reducing that design speed” closer to 25, Leavitt argued.

“[Mass]DOT has a problem,” he said. “They think West Chatham is a highway. We think it's a village center.”

“I don't feel West Chatham is a village center,” Love said. Chatham already has a downtown area, she noted.

On a motion by Taylor, the board voted to send Cocolis' three pages of planning board and HBDC recommendations to every abutting property owner, inviting their comment.

“We are reaching out,” Metters said. “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” The motion also directed staff to provide more specific cost estimates for various landscaping installation and maintenance options.