Red tape

WESTPORT Despite a dire need for repairs, an extended review by the Adirondack Park Agency may prevent a Westport road from being rebuilt this year. Members of the Westport Town Board expressed their frustration with APA regulations Oct. 17 while meeting with APA review officers at the site of the proposed road project. An Urgent Need A section of Marion Forge Road, an unpaved town road along the Boquet River, has been reduced to one lane of traffic as washouts have claimed part of the steep riverside embankment supporting the road. The damage has created a steep drop-off to the wooded bank and more than 20 feet to the river below. We have a problem, explained Carl Schoder, the consulting engineer for the project, and we need to address it as soon as possible because theres a safety issue. The town has placed traffic cones and other warning signs along the receding edge of the road, Westport Supervisor Dan Connell said, but they are continually being stolen by vandals. According to Connell, problems with the existing road have already caused one accident earlier this summer where a vehicle swerved and rolled over into the ditch opposite the river bank. Also, the road is one of only two ways to access several nearby houses, explained Connell, and the other is sometimes blocked by active railroad lines. Somebodys going to get killed, said Connell, noting that the town could potentially be held liable if an emergency arose. Its just a matter of time. Bound by Process Connell said town officials have been working to come up with a solution for more than a year and a half and only need APA approval to move forward with the project. Originally, the plan was to bolster the embankment to allow for a repair of the existing road. The town made a jurisdictional inquiry in July 2007 and the APA claimed no jurisdiction over the proposal. The repair was estimated to cost nearly a half-million dollars, so the town sought funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A subsequent engineers report concluded that moving a section of the road further back from the river would be safer, more financially feasible, and less intrusive to the riverbank. Owners of the land adjacent to the road agreed to swap the old roadway for the new one, explained Schoder, and to reseed the old roadway with trees. The town zoning board approved the plan, which also has the support of the local chapter of Nature Conservancy, Connell said. In summary, its a win-win-win, said Schoder. The landowner wins, the town wins, and the river wins. The town submitted their new plan in September 2008, but the APA returned it as incomplete, requiring more information before the permit would be approved. Our staff has responded in a very expedited manner, said APA spokesman Keith McKeever, stating that requests for more information are not uncommon for permit applications. We understand that theres a need to fix the road, but we are bound by process. A New Precedent? Among the requirements listed was for the town to submit a variance application. A variance is required, APA officials say, because a new section of road would be considered a new structure under APA legislation, and would normally require a 150-foot setback from the river. There is new land use, said APA project review officer Virginia Yamrick while visiting the site. Youre putting a road where one didnt exist before. Schoder disagreed, however, saying that roads are defined separately in the law. Thats a dangerous and difficult precedent, to define a road as a structure, said Schoder, suggesting that it could lead to APA variances being required for many other highway projects near rivers within the park. County highway superintendent Fred Buck and local engineer Tony Lavign, who were both present at the meeting, said they were unaware of a variance being required for any similar project in the past. Yamrick suggested the alternative of relocating the road even further uphill from the riverbank where it would be outside the 150-foot limit of the applicable legislation. Schoder explained that option had already been ruled out due to traffic safety concerns. We, as the town of Westport, are not going to set the precedent for requiring a variance, said Connell. Were talking about a road, not a structure. The Next Step Yamrick agreed to take concerns over the requirement for a variance back to the APA. Meanwhile, the town must provide documents noting support from the towns planning board and its ownership of the current roadway, which town officials say dates back to a 19th century deed. However, even if the permit application was deemed complete in the next few days, Yamrick explained, a required comment period would prevent a permit from being issued until Mid-November at the earliest. Even then, Schoder said, he would be willing to start work on the road, but work would not be feasible once the ground was frozen. McKeever indicated that the required variance was likely to be approved, but if the town decides to contest a need for the variance, it could delay the project further. Meanwhile, town board members are fuming over the inability to move forward. If we were outside the Adirondack Park, said Connell, this project would have been done two years ago.

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