WISCASSET — A Maine Department of Transportation plan to improve traffic flow through downtown Wiscasset won approval from the town’s selectmen Monday, despite protests from store owners who argued the changes would cripple their businesses.

The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously for Option 2, one of three plans presented by MDOT in a public meeting March 8. The plan calls for bigger sidewalks on Main Street, two sets of traffic lights and the elimination of all on-street parking.

Parking would be shifted to Water Street at the site of the former Coastal Enterprises building, which would be replaced with a parking lot.

Federal and state funds would pay for the project, estimated to cost about $5 million.

The Board of Selectmen’s decision came after a non-binding referendum June 14 that asked residents to choose which MDOT plan they preferred. Of the 738 people who voted, 90 favored Option 1, which was similar to Option 2 but kept on-street parking; 206 preferred Option 3, which would leave Wiscasset as it is now; and 426 favored Option 2.

“I think it is important and significant that Option 2 passed by a better margin than 2 to 1,” said board member David Cherry. “This was a pretty clear and resounding choice.”

That vote, however, was called into question by residents and business owners at Monday’s meeting. They said MDOT project information was placed close to the polling station on June 14, while business owners were told they couldn’t promote any choices within 250 feet of the door.

“The election was flawed. There was blatant discrimination in the way information was presented to the voters,” said Tim Buczkowski, co-owner of Showcase Antiques in Wiscasset.

Buczkowski said that allowing MDOT in the building, near the polling place, was a direct violation of election laws, and that the information was only MDOT’s opinion.

“MDOT talked only about the positive effects it would have on moving traffic through Wiscasset,” he said.

A main point of contention for business owners was the elimination of on-street parking, something they said would destroy the downtown.

“Option 2 is going to prove deadly to the small businesses that currently occupy all 15 storefronts,” Jib Fowles, a resident of Federal Street, said at Monday’s meeting. He pointed to a petition, signed by 20 downtown business representatives, that called for selectmen to go with Option 3.

“MDOT’s agenda and the agenda of the town of Wiscasset are not identical,” Fowles said. “MDOT’s agenda is to flush through as much traffic as possible.”

Other business and building owners in town concurred with Fowles’ assessment of MDOT’s plan. “I don’t know if we can trust the MDOT,” said Ralph H. Doering III.

Doering owns and operates several properties on Main Street. He urged selectmen to leave things as they are, because it’s predictable.

“If you do that, you know what you get. Right now, on Main Street, you have 100 percent occupancy,” he said.

Despite concerns, the board said it would be remiss not to listen to the referendum vote, considering the size of the majority.

“Now, I agree, it’s obvious, it’s very clear that it was not the choice of local business owners,” said Selectman Cherry. “You all are not the only people in town. You’re not the only voters in town. We all have to live with everybody else. The rest of the citizens decided that they would like to go to Option 2.”

The size of voter turnout, the highest for a June referendum in the past decade, also swayed the board’s decision.

Board member Ben Rines said that despite his personal opposition to Option 2, and his own belief that it would be damaging to the town, he didn’t want to go against a majority of the voters.

“We do work in a society that is based on democracy,” said Rines. “I think we need to give the citizens of Wiscasset more credit.”

The project now moves from the planning phase to the design phase, said MDOT Regional Planner Gerry Audibert.

He noted that the town is still not completely committed to the project and the work could still be canceled if opposition is large enough.

“Once we do that, if we cancel the project, technically we have to pay the federal highway funds back,” said Audibert. “Public input is a very serious consideration with federal highway money.”

The design phase could take months, and Wiscasset likely won’t see any changes in the next year, Audibert said.

Chris Chase can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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