Changes in MEMS makeover plan presented to Select Board

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MANCHESTER — The Select Board is considering a scaled-down version of a long-discussed plan to improve pedestrian safety near Manchester Elementary Middle School and overhaul the public parking lot behind Walgreens.

The latest plan, two similar conceptions of which were presented to the board Tuesday night by Christina Haskins of the Dufresne Group, includes a reconfiguration of Memorial Avenue, the installation of an eight-foot-wide sidewalk for pedestrians and cyclists next to the street, and an expansion of the municipally owned parking lot.

The board signaled some support for the new plan — board member Greg Cutler at one point asked if the town could "fast-track this" — but took no action. Chairman Ivan C. Beattie said further discussions with property owners and businesses potentially affected by the proposed changes are necessary.

According to the plan, Main Street would see the installation of an improved crosswalk near its intersection with Memorial Avenue and the elimination of several parallel parking spot outside of Equinox Dental.

The section of Memorial Avenue between Main Street and the entrance to the municipal parking lot would remain a two-way road. As presented, two southbound lanes — intended to ensure that vehicles turning left, or eastbound, do not cause traffic backups — would intersect Main Street, though Town Manager John O'Keefe said he would explore eliminating that element after Beattie raised concern about the potential impact on deliveries at Maplefields convenience store.

New parallel parking spaces along Memorial Avenue would offset the ones eliminated on Main Street.

North of the entrance to the municipal parking lot, Memorial Avenue would become a one-way, northbound street, with space along its school side for student drop-offs. This road segment would be narrowed by expanding the field on the street's west side; new curbing would ensure that vehicles cannot park on that side of the street.

The segment's change to one-way would also mean that cars traveling eastbound on School Street would no longer be able to turn right onto Memorial Avenue.

The town parking lot behind Walgreens would be expanded to as many as 87 spaces. It currently provides about 35 to 40 spaces "on a good day, if everybody gets organized," said O'Keefe, who described that improvement as critical to helping to address a downtown parking crunch.

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"The status quo here won't work," O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe said the plan is less reliant on coordination with the Taconic and Green Regional School District than its past iterations, which have been discussed by the board since at least 2016. However, the parking-lot expansion and the narrowing of Memorial Avenue would require a land swap. The town would need to acquire a strip of the district-owned field for the parking-lot expansion, and the district would take control of the portions of Memorial Avenue and School Street that would become part of the field.

The plan's most immediate precursor, introduced about a year ago, entailed dead-ending Memorial Avenue with a cul-de-sac and building a new roadway around the perimeter of the field to link up with School Street. The improvements were expected to cost about $3.1 million, slightly more than half of which the town was to cover. O'Keefe did not provide an estimated cost to the town for the new plan on Tuesday but said it would not be as substantial.

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Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Jackie Wilson acknowledged the old plan's "pretty hefty price tag" at a Taconic and Green board meeting earlier this month, according to GNAT-TV footage, where she introduced the same plan discussed by the Manchester Select Board Tuesday night.

In an interview on Tuesday, Wilson said the district's separate-but-related plans include resurfacing its parking lot off of School Street, relocating its basketball court, installing new fencing and performing landscaping related to the town's provision of the new, eight-foot-wide sidewalk. The district already has set aside certain funds to cover at least some of those improvements, she said.

One version of the current plan envisions an exchange of land between the owner of the Walgreens site and the town to facilitate the parking lot reconfiguration.

Kirk Moore, a principal of BMA Architects & Planners, appeared at Tuesday's meeting on behalf of The Keelan Company, which owns the Walgreens site. He raised concern about the impact of the plan on business operations but said the company is interested in collaborating with the town.

Scoping study accepted

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The Select Board voted Tuesday to approve a scoping study developed by an outside consultant that outlines prospective improvements to a 1.6-mile rail trail.

Described as "largely procedural" by O'Keefe, the vote does not necessarily bind the town to any future course of action.

The 4-0 vote — vice chairman Wayne Bell was absent — followed a presentation of the study's findings by Daniel Peck, a representative of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, the engineering consultancy that drafted the study. Peck's presentation largely mirrored the one he gave publicly last month at Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park.

The study envisions a 10-foot-wide path made of an aggregate trail surface that would link Riley Rink at Hunter Park to North Road. Two steel-girder bridges would allow the path to cross streams. A combination of greenery, boulders and fencing may be deployed along the route, which follows the former Manchester, Dorset & Granville railroad corridor and is owned by a group of residents.

O'Keefe has said the study may be used to pursue federal grants to cover as much as 80 percent of the project's cost, which is estimated to be about $1.2 to $1.3 million.

The study has been submitted to the Vermont Agency of Transportation for feedback, which is expected to be received soon, Peck said.

O'Keefe said Tuesday that a possible next step, if the board is interested in pursuing the project, is calculating the annual cost to the town of maintaining the path, which would include mowing adjacent grass, tree-limb management and possible bridge repairs.

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