ORLEANS — Keeping things safe on Beach Road, the town's scenic route through East Orleans to Nauset Beach, means different things to different people.
If you cycle or walk along the winding road, it might mean adding bike lanes or sidewalks. If you live along the road, it might mean defending your landscaping and the overall scenic charm.
The bike and pedestrian committee asked selectmen last week to support a survey of Beach Road with the intent of widening it from 26 to 33 feet (mostly three feet on either side) to “give motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists a much safer environment,” as committee member Betsy Hicks said. The proposal drew criticism from property owners and illuminated how little the town can do if they are opposed to the changes.
Beach Road has a “very narrow width with major intersections, curves, changes in elevation, poor sight lines, inconsistent shoulders, grading issues, and obstructions immediately adjacent to shoulders,” Hicks said. The paved road “really does not provide adequate access to over-sized vehicles such as fire and landscaping. I've experienced being pushed off the road not by a construction truck but by the trailer behind it.”
Yet, she continued, “given all these potential hazards, many motorists exceed the 30 mile per hour speed limit. We think there's a strong need for traffic calming enhancements.” Hicks said the changes proposed are consistent with the town's local comprehensive plan, which she said states that “roads and intersections should be widened to provide for safe bicycle and pedestrian travel.”
Based on the road survey, Hicks said, the committee “would work with a very wide group of constituents to reach a compromise that retains the road's semi-rural nature while addressing safety needs.”
Nancy Renn, who lives on a street off Beach Road, urged selectmen to “drop this item for further consideration.” She said the town improved safety on the road with new signage that warns the area is densely populated and that the speed limit is strictly enforced. She pointed to new “Walk Left/Ride Right” and “Share the Road” signs” as well as the DPW's efforts to cut back brush as further evidence that “the safety of Beach Road is significantly improved.”
Noting its designation as a scenic road, Renn said the “shaded, tree-lined configuration is a valuable asset to the town.” She said a survey and layout of the road “could be the first step in a multi-million-dollar reconstruction,” and that “many Beach Road owners are opposed. In a survey in 2016 of all property owners, 48 out of 67 were opposed. I believe this sentiment has not changed.”
Beach Road has become “a kind of lightning rod,” Selectman Mefford Runyon said, “but there are lots of other prime candidates for a widening. I think we need to get better educated about this. We should try to explore how rural areas might modify roads and not have curbs. We don't have to start spending money now, but the process of learning and public education should begin. We may be able to find ways property owners along the road (think) that goal is modest enough that they don't feel their street is being ruined.”
Town Administrator John Kelly offered a short introductory course on taking roads. The process includes a survey and proposed layout, and then an appraisal of any private property that would be claimed by the town. “Unless you have 100 percent of the owners on the road sign a release saying they waive the right to receive damages from the town in return for the layout, you're required to do an appraisal,” he said. “This is a very intricate process. The board has a policy that it will not lay out a road without 100 percent release from lien. If it's between 75 and 100, the board will make a decision.”
Kelly recalled a previous attempt to lay out Rock Harbor Road. “(Selectmen) had a similar situation as they did with abutters on Beach Road who were pretty unanimous in their opposition,” he recalled. “The board did not move forward. On Monument Road, there were similar issues.”
Such roads, Kelly said, “should have been laid out 40 to 50 years ago, but to go back now after everyone has invested in their properties – stone walls and landscaping – is a very expensive process. Litigation could tie this up for years.”
Likening inaction on the roads to the laborious progress of a town sewer system, Selectman David Currier urged the town “not to keep compounding the same mistake. Do we take that first step, trying to make a wrong a right?”
Runyon agreed. “I'm not in any way ready to stay it's too hard to do,” he said. “If it takes 50 years to make progress, fine, let's start today with one small step. Finding a way to marry the rural aspect of these roads with greater public safety is a doable thing. It will require research and time and cooperation.”
Earlier, Selectman Mark Mumford said he enjoys riding his bike on the town's back roads, “places I don't usually drive. My concern is that...when you try to co-mingle all of that pedestrian traffic with the main roads and the vast flow of people trying to get from point A to point B, it doesn't work. If you want people to enjoy their bikes and walks, look at the places where that can be done safely away from those main thoroughfares.”
Selectman Alan McClennen, who said he's measured the width of some of the town's main roads, noted that Beach Road is going to be repaved. “We ought to talk to (DPW Director) Tom Daley about how we really approach the striping of this in the future. Are there places where we can make adjustments to make sure we have as much space on both sides so people can walk and bike with safety?”
The board agreed to hear from Daley about his concerns regarding Beach Road and other essential thoroughfares. Hicks said the bike and pedestrian committee would be happy to have “some additional support to really understand how we can go about a more comprehensive review of priorities. We'd love to work with you on that.”