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Middlebury readies for Creek Road repair plan

We’re trying to do the right thing, and we’re trying to keep people safe.
— Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter

MIDDLEBURY — A committee charged with recommending long-term solutions for deteriorating Creek Road advised the Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday to move quickly on a few short-term repairs that would allow for a quick reopening of a road they asserted was illegally closed to through-traffic more than four years ago.
But a majority of the selectboard rejected the panel’s advice, fearing any short-term upgrades might have to be undone for a more permanent solution the task force is expected to bring forward within the next few months. The panel is likely to recommend a solution that lies somewhere between abandoning the road and investing $4.9 million for a major rebuild — the most costly of four options outlined by an engineer who completed an exhaustive study of Creek Road.
“To act on this right now, I’m not in favor of that,” Selectman Nick Artim said. “I would rather wait until we get the full range of options.”
It was during the spring of 2015 that the selectboard ordered Creek Road closed after flooding tore away shoulders and washed out gravel along road, which links Route 7/Court Street to Three Mile Bridge Road. The road remains closed at Three Mile Bridge Road and for a few miles north with gates at either end.
Creek Road currently serves four homes and gives three farms access to their respective crop fields. Some drivers have historically used it as a bypass for Route 7 en route to Shard Villa Road and Salisbury. Others use it to access fishing holes and for walking, jogging and/or biking.
Local engineer Peter DeGraff in May presented the town with several potential repair options for Creek Road, ranging in cost from $671,000 to $4.9 million. The selectboard appointed a four-member Creek Road Task Force to weigh options and recommend a leading repair scenario that could be discussed at town meeting next March.
The task force has been meeting monthly and is reviewing nine repair options, according to Selectwoman Heather Seeley, who chairs the panel. And the task force learned fairly early that Creek Road was closed illegally, according to Seeley.
“At no time has the selectboard held proceedings per state statue to change or otherwise reclassify Creek Road,” Seeley wrote in an Oct. 16 memo to Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay. “Creek Road is a Class 3 Town Highway the public has the right to travel over all parts of.”
Fellow task force member Dean Rheaume also stressed that point at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting.
“The town did not follow state statute in closing that road,” he said. “It’s a class 3 highway. It has to be maintained and has to be open to the public for all forms of travel.”
Rheaume noted affected Creek Road property owners filed a document with the town within 72 hours of the 2015 closure, requesting that repairs be made promptly so the road could reopen.
 “Gate management has been horrible; landowners have had access trouble,” he said. “I think what we’re trying to say is, the town is in a tough legal spot here. A lot of us feel that what (the town) did is illegal, and we need to step back and correct that, follow the process and do it correctly.”
The panel on Sept. 26 voted 2-1, with one member absent, to spend $12,000 for basic repairs along the southern section of Creek Road — including installation of guardrail at strategic locations — to allow the entire road to reopen. The selectboard in August OK’d a similar sum to install a combined total of 1,340 linear feet of guardrail along a dozen sections of the northern section of Creek Road to steer drivers away from the riverbank and deteriorating portions of the roadway.
“I think this proposal helps rectify this situation of ‘temporary,’ and buy us a little time,” Seeley said. “It opens up the road until we can identify what we want to do, how we’re going to pay for it, and when it’s going to happen.”
But a “quick fix” for Creek Road is likely to exceed $12,000, according to Middlebury Director of Operations Bill Kernan. He noted in a Nov. 7 memo that:
• The culvert just south of the northern gate would need to be inspected. That culvert was submerged last week.
• An estimated $20,000 in gravel would be needed to restore proper road width, plus additional equipment and labor costs to spread the gravel and for storm water ditching.
Kernan added there’s no guarantee contractors will be able to find used guardrail for the southern section of Creek Road. Having to install brand-new guardrail would drive project costs “much higher” than the requested $12,000, he warned.
Moreover, Kernan presented photos he said demonstrated Creek Road “has deteriorated over time, resulting in loss of storm water ditching, potholes, soft shoulders, muddy gravel and travel lane restrictions down to 12 feet.”
Selectboard members were pretty evenly divided on whether to endorse the task force’s call to open Creek Road.
“We know people value that road — both recreational users and others who live on that road,” Selectwoman Laura Asermily said. “We also know we have severe rain events that are continuing to undermine that road. We don’t want to throw money away; it makes it very difficult to plan for the future of this road.”
But she added: “It might be worth the experiment to see how it functions.”
Selectwoman Lindsey Fuentes-George also spoke in favor of reopening the road.
“Given the timeline and how long it’s going to take for something to happen, it sounds to me like the road can be safely opened and I think that would be the right thing to do until we have a recommendation,” she said. “While most people don’t use that road on a daily basis, some people do, and in a rural area like ours, I think it’s important that even people living on streets with a couple of houses feel like the town is going to be responsive to their needs.”
Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter proved the tiebreaker in a 4-3 vote in favor of keeping Creek Road closed while the task force completes its work.
“We’re trying to do the right thing, and we’re trying to keep people safe,” he said. “We took an action (to close the road) based on the recommendation of senior staff. I think it’s defensible in court.”
He also suggested it might be time for townspeople to weigh in on the future of the road.
“I think if we came down to it, and the town wanted to vote on it, it’s time to do a poll and see if the town values it enough to put a couple million dollars into a road,” Carpenter said. “We’re looking for creative solutions and grant money.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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