Whose Road Is It Anyway? Battle Over Beach Road Continues
By: Ed Maroney
ORLEANS — Town meeting said no to a $75,000 survey of Beach Road that would have allowed further consideration of laying out the route to Nauset Beach as a public way, potentially building a “Safe Pedestrian Sidewalk” along it. On a voice vote, the petitioned article fell short of the required three-fourths majority.
“Beach Road is bigger than the residents on Beach Road,” Katy Day told town meeting as she urged support for the study. “Beach Road belongs to everybody in Orleans.”
Last week's result doesn't mean advocates have packed away their sneakers. As the debate made clear, there are some who believe the town should do more to make the road safer for walkers and bicyclists, even if that requires land takings and court battles.
“I learned a lot,” petitioner Kevin Crepeau said in an interview this week. “I'm gonna go back at it in the special town meeting in the fall. Every time we raise an issue like this, we put a conversation out there so people have an opportunity to talk. We raise awareness and give the good people of Orleans an opportunity to weigh in with their opinion.”
That certainly was the case at town meeting, when pros and cons were aired vigorously. The selectmen and finance committee were unanimous in opposition, with Selectmen Chairman Jon Fuller noting the results of a 2011 feasibility study that examined an 8,000-foot-long sidewalk at a cost of $880,000, with 125 affected property owners. Among the 90 direct abutters, he said, there was “overwhelming opposition” to the sidewalk. Fuller noted the town's policy on laying out roads requires support from at least 75 percent of abutters. Peter O'Hara of the finance committee voiced his board's concern about eminent domain takings and potential litigation from abutters.
Support for the initiative came from the bike and pedestrian committee. Chair Alice Thomason Van Oot said the survey “would provide the data necessary to develop and evaluate options to support multi-modal use of Beach Road.” She noted that the town's comprehensive plan calls for intersections and roads to be widened for bike and pedestrian safety, and calls for development of layouts for all major public roads by fiscal year 2020.
Van Oot was backed up by committee colleague Libby Callahan, who called Beach Road a “major connector” between Nauset Beach and nearby neighborhoods and the center of town. “This is about asking $75,000 to survey a road that has in summertime 7,000 cars passing through, to make it safer for pedestrians. It's not about scenery.”
Sue Christie said the DPW and the police department have already done a good job of clearing overhanging brush, putting up signs and enforcing speed limits. “We have widened the road as much as many of us want to see,” she said.
Pru Montgomery agreed that the town “can achieve safety on our roads, and particularly Beach Road as it is maintained presently with guidelines painted on either side of the road. I'm concerned about sidewalks; sidewalks cause drivers to drive faster.”
A good effort has been made to improve safety, said Howard Kucks, who warned that the $75,000 requested for a study was “just the tip of the iceberg. It'll run into millions of dollars, with estimates for the sidewalk of over a million and land takings (that would be) staggering.” He raised some hackles when he recalled a 2015 incident in which a group of women walking on Beach Road were struck by a car. “(They) were walking four abreast, talking,” he said. “That's why one of them got hit...so we invest millions of dollars because they're not paying attention. I think that's crazy.”
(According to the Orleans Police Department report on the accident, the seven women who were walking to the beach on May 24, 2015, said they were “walking no more than two abreast and were on the right side of the fog line” when a car crossed the line and struck six of them. The driver told police that the accident was “entirely my fault,” and that he believed he had fallen asleep at the wheel. He was cited for negligent operation of a motor vehicle and a marked lanes violation. “The culpability for the crash lies with (the driver's) failure to maintain control...in a safe and reasonable manner,” Officer Daniel Elliott wrote. “The resulting impact with six pedestrians caused injuries ranging from minor abrasions to serious head trauma.”)
“The four girls that got hit were right out in front of my parents' house,” said Gretel Norgeot, who grew up on Beach Road. “The guy that hit them fell asleep behind the wheel. I think this whole business started with that. There hadn't been accidents (there) before that for as long as I can remember.” Citing recent safety improvements, she urged a “no” vote.
“The police officers do an amazing job patrolling Beach Road, but they're not always there,” said Jennifer Clark. “There are people who fly down that road all the time.” She won't let her 10-year-old daughter walk on the road, and she wonders what sort of message the town is sending to the young families in the area by not helping children have the same sorts of experiences their parents enjoyed when they were young.
That resonates with Crepeau, who has a 10-year-old son who's a fourth grader at Orleans Elementary. “We live right off Beach Road, and we love it,” he said. “As we have settled in to the neighborhood over the past four years, it's become painfully obvious that we're unable to walk on Beach Road in either direction. We're about three quarters of a mile from Nauset Beach and a few hundred yards from the post office. It's just not safe.”
Crepeau said he “knew I was fighting an uphill battle. I knew the opposition to safe sidewalks is very well organized. They have unduly influenced the selectmen and unduly influenced the finance committee.”
Nevertheless, he thinks progress has been made. “When the voice vote was counted, it was pretty close to 50-50,” he said (a three-fourths majority was required). “This is the most advanced level we've had. We're allowing people to start thinking and talking about what they want to do.”