Over the objections of the City Council, the city administration is going to ask the Maine Department of Transportation whether it would be possible to add a signalized intersection to the Westbrook Arterial.

If the state approves the intersection, which would be located in the area of the Saunders Brothers mill, it could be the first step in bringing a long-delayed Wal-Mart project for the Saunders land to fruition.

The administration maintains the letter does not constitute an application for a specific project but is simply a request for information. Officials said the city would like to know whether any access to the arterial, which is a state road, is possible so that the city may use this information for future planning.

At a meeting of the council’s Growth and Traffic Committee Monday night, the city council and the administration discussed the merits of sending the letter and what implications the intersection would have about future development along the arterial, in particular the construction of a Wal-Mart on the Saunders property.

“The thought was that, given the fact the arterial is one of the few major travel corridors in Westbrook right now that actually has excess traffic capacity,” said City Administrator Jerre Bryant. “The thought was more improved access onto this highway would be a preferable way to direct future development of the city without having adverse impact on the local streets and traffic corridors that go through the community.”

Bryant said that the issue is complicated by the fact that the arterial is a limited-access highway and is strictly regulated by the state. The arterial serves both Westbrook as well as other communities that use the road as a thruway. Therefore, Westbrook would need Maine Department of Transportation approval to make any new access points along the road.

Several council members questioned why the city wanted to send the letter.

Councilor Drew Gattine argued against sending the letter without any specific project seeking application from the city. He questioned why the subject was before the committee for the third time in just over a year when there was still no specific project before them and the committee had voted against moving forward on the issue twice already in January and October 2005.

Bryant said that the administration was attempting to be proactive rather than reactive, something he said Westbrook is commonly accused of.

“We believe that it is prudent on our part to take this step to at least go through some sort of a planning process,” said Mayor Bruce Chuluda.

Several residents, including representatives of Westbrook Our Home, a residents’ group opposed to the Wal-Mart project, spoke out against making the request to the state.

Oak Street resident Anne Bureau said that she thought putting a traffic light on the arterial would only cause more traffic problems. “It’s almost as if the city is participating in brokering this deal,” she said.

Clifford Street resident Robert Thiel said he was worried about making decisions without clear plans. “What concerns me about this is the precedent that it sets,” he said. “The zoning was changed on the Saunders property without a clear plan in place.”

Other residents spoke in favor of sending the letter. Darryl Wright, president of the Westbrook Chamber of Commerce, said what the city was trying to do is get traffic off the neighborhood streets to account for upcoming development.

Josh Saunders, president of Saunders Brothers, said he’s been in a state of limbo for over two years because he can’t provide the council with a project plan and his prospective developer, Wal-Mart, will not provide him with a plan until they know whether they can develop.

“(The city) is asking MDOT to tell the city how they would look at any future requests for access off of the arterial and what options the city might have for that access, if any,” Saunders said. “Those answers would let me (and) the city have a much clearer picture as to what options are available to all of us.”

Bryant said he asked the committee to discuss the issue because the administration wanted to keep the council involved. Bryant said early on in the meeting that the administration could send the letter without the council’s approval and would do so regardless of the council’s action that night.

“While I would like to see the committee certainly support the initiative, it would be my intention to make that request of MDOT to have them prepare some sort of options for us,” Chuluda said.

After discussing the question for two hours, Councilor Michael Foley brought forward a motion to vote on the matter and then tried to retract the motion. Councilor John O’Hara, who had seconded the original motion, refused to retract it.

Both Foley and Councilor Ed Symbol said they would most likely vote against having an access cut into the arterial even if the state said one was possible.

O’Hara said the council should get as much information they could and should, therefore, send the letter to the state. The council eventually voted three to two against sending the letter. Councilors Dorothy Aube, Foley and Gattine voted against sending the letter and O’Hara and Symbol voted in favor of sending the request. Council President Brendan Rielly and Councilor Suzanne Joyce were absent from the meeting.

In an interview Tuesday, Bryant said he planned to draft and send a letter sometime this week. Bryant said the letter would ask the state what access options are available to Westbrook in the area of the Saunders property.

Josh Saunders, president of Saunders Brothers spoke at a meeting of the Westbrook City Council’s Growth and Traffic Committee Monday night. Saunders urged the committee to sign off on the city administration’s plan to send a letter to the state asking about a new intersection on the Westbrook Arterial.

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