Asphalt could soon become a canvas in Westbrook.

At the prompting of local residents, the city is considering a neighborhood project to paint designs in intersections. These street paintings already exist across the country in Oregon, Colorado and Minnesota. Proponents say they build a connection between neighbors and they calm traffic on busy roads.

“It’s a tactic for building stronger neighborhoods through a creative investment in their place,” Westbrook resident Michael Shaughnessy said.

Shaughnessy, an art professor at the University of Southern Maine, saw street paintings while traveling to other cities and brought the idea home. The Westbrook City Council discussed the idea at its June 19 meeting and referred it to city administration for further study.

Councilors expressed general support for the artwork but had concerns about how the painting would affect traffic in a busy intersection.

“I am in favor of this, but there’s too many questions for me,” Ward 2 Councilor Victor Chau said. “There’s a lot of concerns. There’s liability, there’s accidents, there’s friction. I’d like to know exactly how the other cities get through this. I want to see this done, but not at this moment and not until we get all these questions answered.”

In cities like Portland, Oregon, residents came together to design and create paintings on the pavement of local intersections. Unique to each neighborhood, the images range from nature scenes to a dragon to geometric patterns.

“The artwork is almost secondary to the nature of bringing people together,” Shaughnessy said.

Westbrook officials liked the concept, but they also had concerns.

In a memo to the council, police Capt. Steve Goldberg said paint on a roadway could be a violation of federal law. Eric Dudley, director of engineering and public services, said he had concerns about artwork interfering with the required road markings for crosswalks and stop signs. They also worried the painting would be a distraction or would affect the traction in the intersection, making the city liable in the event of an accident.

The councilors wanted to know more about how other cities handle those concerns and how the artwork could calm traffic. Shaughnessy had suggested painting the intersection of Brown and North streets, a busy junction in the Frenchtown neighborhood, but they wanted to consider quieter side streets as well.

They also wondered how winter road maintenance would affect the paint and who would maintain the artwork. Shaughnessy said the paint for these projects is relatively inexpensive and could be paid for by private fundraising, and he did not anticipate the city would pay for any of those costs. It would be up to the neighborhoods to maintain their street paintings, he suggested.

“Safety is my No. 1 concern,” Ward 3 Councilor Anna Turcotte said.

In Denver, one of the communities where street paintings have been allowed, the city website outlines design and location requirements. For example, a 2-foot buffer must separate artwork and crosswalk markings. Community organizations must apply to create their paintings and use particular materials on the road to prevent slipping.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant suggested guidelines or a new ordinance could create a protocol for these paintings in Westbrook as well. He tasked Assistant City Administrator John Wipfler with researching the idea and returning to the City Council with his findings. Two Westbrook residents also spoke in support of the idea, saying it would be a way to bring their communities together. Shaughnessy said he felt the meeting was a step toward seeing the paintings take shape.

“There’s a lot of good questions there,” Shaughnessy said. “They all seem to like the idea.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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