Route 116 pit hearing focuses on trucks

MIDDLEBURY — Is Route 116 north of the intersection with Quarry Road in Middlebury dangerous and would increased truck traffic from the proposed Fenn gravel pit, which would have an access road there, imperil others who use the road?
That was the crux of the discussion at a Monday evening hearing at which the Middlebury Development Review Board considered the application of Ronald and Susan Fenn to site a quarry on their property east of that stretch of Route 116, known locally as Case Street.
During the two-and-three-quarter-hour meeting at Ilsley Library, an engineer working for the Fenns acknowledged that the stopping distance for trucks passing by the pit’s entrance may not meet national safety standards. Also, Police Chief Tom Hanley gave mixed opinions on the safety of the road and aired his concern that heavily loaded trucks could alter the road surface thus causing safety issues.
The DRB is holding a series of hearings on the Fenns’ proposal, which calls for the pit to be open from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., 180 days per year, and for 20 round-trip truck trips in and out of the pit via a new Route 116 access road located approximately 120 feet north of the intersection with Quarry Road. Monday’s hearing, attended by around 50 people plus the board, focused mostly on issues of traffic safety.
The acknowledgment of the potential safety issue by Fenn pit project designer John Petrowski of Trudell Consulting Engineers Inc. came after Mead Lane resident Chris Frappier made an emotional appeal to keep the road safe.
“I’m concerned that my daughter will be driving in a few weeks, and I don’t want her dying on that road,” he said.
Mark Hall, the Fenns’ attorney, seemed to lose patience at this point. He had been listening for more than an hour and a half as many neighborhood residents (including Hanley, who lives on Mead Lane) raised concerns about the safety of drivers who would come upon gravel trucks entering and exiting the access road — Route 116 has a curve and a downhill section north of the access road.
“I have to argue with this on the record,” Hall snapped. “This is said to be a dangerous road; there is no data recognizing this as a dangerous road.”
Mead Lane resident Ron Kohn said it was a dangerous road, or would be if the pit access road was put where it is proposed, because sightlines for drivers would be “less than industry standard.” He cited a chart produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) that said a truck traveling 50 mph would need well over 800 feet to stop in an emergency.
Petrowski argued that AASHTO safety standards he had seen said the stopping distance for a double-axle truck going 50 mph was actually only 700 feet, and for a truck pulling a trailer was 750 feet.
Noting an inconsistency, board member Adam Portz asked Petrowski, “On page 4 (of the Fenns’ application) you say the sight distance is 672 feet?”
“Yes,” Petrowski answered.
“Would you say that falls below the actual standard?” Portz asked.
“For 50 mph, yes, that’s a little short,” Petrowski said.
Monarch Court resident Craig Cook then jumped in. Pointing out his first-hand experience driving a milk truck, he said a fully loaded truck weighing 80,000 pounds at 50 mph would take “two-and-a-half football fields to stop.”
Referring to the 672 feet sight distance in the Fenn application, Cook said, “I’m not going to stop that truck in that distance. I’m going to take out one, two, four cars. You want that on your record?”
Petrowski agreed to Portz’s request that he come to the next meeting prepared to rebut or confirm the industry standard stopping distance at issue.
In his testimony, Hanley said that the stretch of Route 116 in question had a “very low accident” rate, with only three accidents in the last seven years during the proposed hours of operation of the pit. He also suggested that having big, slow trucks on the road may in part have a calming effect that actually slows traffic in the area.
Traffic surveys showed that 85 percent of vehicles on that stretch were driving 52 mph or slower. The posted speed limit is 50 mph.
He said there are some excessively slow average speeds in the neighborhood because some vehicles are slowing to turn on to Mead Lane or Lindale trailer park, and others are just exiting those areas and haven’t yet built up speed.
He also noted the three fatal accidents on that part of Route 116 — one occurred 20 years ago, one was in 1996 early in the morning, and one was in 1998 late at night.
In response to Town Planner Fred Dunnington’s questioning of whether “some aspects of this road are unsafe,” Hanley answered, “Absolutely.”
“My biggest concern is not the sight distance, it’s the lack of shoulders,” Hanley said. “There’s not an escape route if there is trouble.”
He also said he worried that big, slow-moving gravel trucks could make ruts in the road, which would make them unsafe any time of the day or year, not just when the pit was in operation.
Hall said the Fenn design team hadn’t included widening of shoulders in its application because it had been told by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) — which has sole authority over the state road — that, essentially, it would not allow such widening.
“Having a condition of VTrans agreeing to that is not something we would welcome,” Hall said. “We have to decide if we will go to court if a condition imposed on us (by the DRB) cannot happen.”
Petrowski, the Fenns’ engineer, said he already was trying to schedule a meeting with VTrans, and he was certain VTrans would allow them to widen the road at least three or four feet.
Others in the audience expressed exasperation with VTrans and this section of the road, asking why the state agency wouldn’t allow the town to lower the speed limit and why it hadn’t fixed a broken yellow blinking light that was supposed to warn motorists when a school bus was stopped near the curve.
Hanley made several recommendations regarding how the DRB should decide if the proposed pit operation would affect highway safety, all of them involving VTrans.
First, Hanley said, the board should have a VTrans engineer explain the carrying capacity of the road as designed. They could weigh that against the difference between the current traffic volume and the estimated volume with the new pit. Also, the engineer could tell the board the structure of the road and explain whether it could handle more slow, heavy trucks without causing rutting.
Hanley said the board should also urge VTrans to consider adding deceleration and turning lanes at the pit entrance and designate the area as a no-passing zone, if the pit comes to pass.
Other concerns those at the meeting expressed included that:
• Growing vegetation could obscure the line of sight that otherwise would enable drivers to avoid pit-related hazards, such as a southbound dump truck stopped to make a left turn onto the pit entrance road.
• Bike tours that currently use that section of Route 116 could be endangered by trucks entering and exiting the entrance road.
• Two trucks looking to enter the proposed access road at the same time from opposite directions would increase the danger if other drivers fail to slow or stop in time.
• The Fenn application only accounted for increased traffic from large dump trucks, not additional traffic from other vehicles associated with the pit operation.
The DRB set Monday, Nov. 23, at 7 p.m. at Ilsley for the next hearing on the Fenn proposal. At that time it will entertain questions and welcome data on how increased noise from the proposed pit would affect the neighborhood.
After recessing the hearing, board members voted on a motion filed Sept. 28 by 12 neighbors of the Fenn property. The neighbors wanted the DRB to dismiss the Fenn application based on the fact that the access road crossed land zoned residential, which they said was forbidden by Section 705(III) of the Middlebury zoning regulations.
All the board members but Patrick Berry rejected the motion to dismiss based on the advice of town attorney Benjamin Putnam. He said, among other things, that the board could deny the motion because the heading for Section 705(III) referred only to access roads that crossed residential zones on the way to Commercial and Industrial districts, and the Fenn pit would sit in a Forest district.
In an unrelated move, the DRB unanimously denied a motion by an attorney representing McDonald’s Corp. to reconsider the board’s Oct. 7 decision not to allow the burger giant to tear down and rebuild its Route 7 South restaurant with what the DRB ruled was more signage than is permitted.
“It’s disappointing we had to take this vote because of the lack of creativity on the applicant’s part,” Berry said. “The regulations are very clear.”

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