The town of Wiscasset has sued the Maine Department of Transportation, seeking to block a controversial project aimed at improving the flow of traffic through its historic village.

At issue is the state’s plan to widen the section of Route 1 – Wiscasset’s Main Street – that passes through the village and gets clogged in the summer with motorists traveling up and down the coast. The project would eliminate parking places in front of local businesses, add traffic lights and turning lanes, and require the demolition of a 1916 building that once housed Maine’s first Ford dealership.

The lawsuit, filed late Tuesday in Lincoln County Superior Court, says the project would “adversely affect the historic character and viability” of the village and does not comply with town ordinances or state law. The town wants the court to order the Department of Transportation to delay starting the project until it complies with local regulations and reaches an agreement with town officials on how to pay for long-term costs.

“The town looks forward to seeing the process through and is hopeful that MDOT will comply with the town’s requests,” Town Manager Marian Anderson said in a written statement. “We look forward to continuing to work positively with MDOT to resolve the issues.” She did not respond to messages from the Portland Press Herald.

Opponents of the $5 million project – which will receive no federal funding – have argued that it would ruin the town center’s character and drive out businesses without making any meaningful improvement to the traffic problems, which result in miles-long backups in both directions approaching the village and on the bridge over the Sheepscot River.

“At least we are headed toward a conclusion of this controversy one way or another,” said Bill Sutter, a resident and vocal opponent of the plan. “They have been very intransigent about continuing the conversation.”

A spokesman said the Department of Transportation was disappointed to learn of the lawsuit. “The department recently met with town representatives and was continuing to work in good faith to address public concerns about certain project features when it was told of the lawsuit,” Ted Talbot said via email.

The Portland attorney representing the town, Peter Murray, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Residents and elected officials in the midcoast town were initially supportive of the plan as originally presented by the state in April 2016. That plan would have removed most of the on-street parking on a two-block stretch of Main Street, would have been paid for mostly with federal funds and would have been subject to historic preservation requirements. Substitute parking was to be created on nearby Creamery Wharf. And, according to the town’s court filing, the state would not use eminent domain.

But after residents approved the plan in a nonbinding referendum in June 2016, the department modified the project, dropping plans to use more than $4 million in federal funding and, with it, the requirement that it comply with historic preservation and certain environmental rules. The department also announced that it would remove parking from the village’s two principal cross-streets – Water and Middle – and make them both one-way.

The Haggett Garage, a brick building built in 1916 that now houses the nonprofit Midcoast Conservancy, was seized by eminent domain and is scheduled to be demolished as early as next week to make way for a relocated parking lot, according to the town.

Local merchants and commercial property owners fear the loss of on-street parking will hurt businesses. “There is definitely a traffic problem and some solution needs to be found, but this isn’t going to work,” said Ralph Doering, a seasonal resident of the area whose family owns several retail properties on the affected streets.

In a second referendum this June, Wiscasset voters withdrew support for the revised project. The town Select Board followed in a 3-2 vote.

The town’s lawsuit claims the Department of Transportation is in violation of state laws requiring it to comply with local zoning by getting permission from the town’s historic preservation commission before demolishing the Haggett Garage. It also alleges that the state broke its commitment with the town to draft an agreement that would spell out how ongoing costs associated with the project – like the maintenance of sidewalks, parking lots and landscaping – will be covered.

In his statement, Talbot said the department couldn’t comment in detail because the matter is now in litigation. But he did say it is considering delaying the demolition of the former garage as it works on an agreement with the town.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

[email protected]