Vehicles leave downtown Wiscasset on Route 1 Wednesday. In the summer, traffic backs up for miles on the north and south approaches to the bridge over the Sheepscot River. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The Maine Department of Transportation has threatened to remove all parking from Wiscasset’s Main Street without building alternative spaces if the town requires the state’s Route 1 traffic improvement project to comply with local ordinances, the town asserted in a court filing.

Such a move would leave downtown Wiscasset without adequate parking, a scenario that local business owners describe in catastrophic terms. The state’s threat represents a further escalation in tensions among this midcoast community of 3,700, the department and Gov. Paul LePage, who many residents believe is behind the department’s aggressive strategy to force through the project on its terms.

“Clearly, if they eliminate parking for the 30 small businesses, there’s no way we can survive,” said Keith Oehmig, proprietor of the Wiscasset Bay Gallery on Main Street and a spokesman for a coalition of business owners. “We’re dependent on cars and parking in these small towns. It’s not as if people can take subways and trains in.”

Wiscasset sued MDOT on Nov. 28 over the state’s $5 million plan to mitigate the notorious summertime traffic bottlenecks in the town’s historic village center, after the LePage administration allegedly reneged on key promises and asserted that it did not have to comply with local ordinances. Last month, an attorney representing the town told residents it had reached a compromise with the department, but that the deal had been scuttled by LePage himself, who they said insists there be no parking on Main Street, regardless of its predicted effects on traffic or business.

In a motion filed March 2, attorneys representing the town said MDOT had told them it might simply drop a component of the project: creating parking lots off nearby side streets to make up for the parking spots lost on Main Street. The motion asks the state Business and Consumer Court in Portland to prevent work on any part of the project from commencing until the department seeks and receives the town’s historic preservation review.

“This raises the possibility that MDOT might seek to build a truncated project that strips all parking from Main Street, but does not provide any off-street parking in its place, a configuration that was never reviewed or discussed with the town and that does even more violence to the local interests than the original scheme,” attorney John Shumadine wrote in the filing.

Asked for a response, MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot sent a short written statement that did not refute the town’s account.

“MaineDOT will be responding formally to the town’s latest arguments through the court system,” Talbot wrote. “This important project to address the Wiscasset traffic delays and improve certain downtown infrastructure elements has substantial local support and regional significance. MaineDOT intends to move forward with this project.”

STATE ‘SNEERING AT LOCAL LAWS’

The department also has filed motions asking the court to order the town to pay for any increased project costs incurred to comply with local ordinances. The town asked the court to dismiss these counterclaims Monday, citing a Maine law that protects parties from claims intended to financially intimidate them from asserting their legal or free speech rights.

The MDOT also contends that the town’s historic preservation ordinance is not a zoning ordinance, and therefore it does not have to comply with the ordinance under state law.

“Wiscasset’s history and its economic well-being mean absolutely nothing to MDOT; in their eyes, Wiscasset’s Main Street is just another piece of road,” said Ralph Doering III, a seasonal resident of the area whose family owns several of the most affected downtown commercial properties and has pledged to cover the town’s legal expenses so it can continue the suit. “They’re sneering at local laws.”

The spokesman for a group of residents who favor the project disagrees, blaming the town for provoking MDOT with its lawsuit.

“If the MDOT were to walk away from doing the entire project, our fear is that we could lose all our parking (and) this would happen because of those opponents who refuse to work with the MDOT,” Brad Sevaldson, co-owner of the Birch home furnishings store on Main Street, said via email. “They say they want to talk, but they don’t want to listen themselves and add constructive pieces to this project.

“The governor has only gotten involved at this very end of the issue since their lawsuit was brought into the picture,” Sevaldson wrote, while declining to answer follow-up questions. “So, the lawsuit stops and discussions can continue.”

The lead attorney for the town, Peter Murray, did not respond to requests for comment.

TOWN ALLEGES BROKEN COMMITMENTS

Wiscasset’s village center – a largely intact complex of 18th- and 19th-century buildings that was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 – is the site of notorious summer traffic jams 2 to 3 miles long on Route 1 on the north and south approaches to the Davey Bridge that spans the Sheepscot River. The state has been trying to solve the problem for more than half a century.

The state’s latest plan, unveiled in spring 2016, promises to improve traffic flow during the worst jams by 12 percent to 14 percent, mostly by adding two traffic lights and “bump out” pedestrian-crossing waiting areas in the village – components that no one opposes. But it also seeks to remove parking on Main Street – currently 23 spaces – and parts of key side streets, measures that the state’s studies say account for just 2 percent to 4 percent of flow improvement.

Residents and the town Board of Selectmen initially supported the plan nonetheless, but majorities of both now oppose it because they say the state has not upheld its end of the bargain and has broken key promises. In June 2017, residents revoked their support in a town referendum after the state reneged on commitments to use federal funding, and thus abide by the associated historic preservation and environmental reviews and requirements that come with it, and to not take any properties by eminent domain.

The town’s lawsuit was prompted by the state’s imminent plan to demolish the Haggett Garage, which it had purchased by invoking eminent domain in order to create off-street replacement parking. The state claims it does not have to abide by local ordinances before demolishing the structure; the town maintains it must under the state’s Sustainable Transportation Act.

LEPAGE FED UP WITH WISCASSET

LePage appears to have taken a personal interest in the project, and has said he’s had enough of the townspeople’s complaints and would like to build a viaduct right over the area. “I have given MDOT full authority to fix this nightmare with or without working with Wiscasset,” LePage wrote to a constituent in August. “After 65 years of trying to work with Wiscasset, the time has come to move on.”

In another message, LePage, who often commutes to his Boothbay home from Augusta via Wiscasset, indicated he was fed up with traffic delays.

“Between June and September it takes approximately (give or take a few minutes) 1 hour, 20 minutes to go from Augusta to Boothbay. The rest of the year it takes 40 minutes,” he wrote to a constituent. “If it were up to me – I would do what was done in Bath. I’d put a bridge from the post office to the middle of the bridge and bypass downtown. U.S. 1 is a state responsibility and not the town.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for April 12.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]