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Will gas station pump up traffic?

Sturbridge residents continue to voice concern over plan

July 14, 2009
STURBRIDGE — The first public hearing of the Planning Board on Tuesday night took only minutes. The second was more involved.

A site plan waiver was granted to Enrique Colbert to relocate the Subway restaurant at 505 Main St. — the former location of Melinda's Menu at 559 Main St.

The second hearing, also regarding a site plan, revisited a proposal to place a gas station at the former Rom's parking lot.

The board was once again visited by Michael Loin of Bertin Engineering on behalf of JCJ Realty Trust, the fiduciary backer of a proposed gasoline/service station and convenience store to be potentially located in what is now the parking lot of the former restaurant.

The hearing, which was continued from a June 2 meeting, focused primarily on the impact the proposed facility would have on traffic on Route 131 and the Fairview Park Road and Shepard Road intersections.

Stephen J. Savaria, senior project manager of Fuss and O'Neil, engineers out of West Springfield, was hired by the town to conduct a traffic study of the area.

Savaria first raised the concern that there was no designated area for pedestrian circulation within the facility, allowing safe passage of walkers between the gas pumps and the buildings, or from the facility itself to the main sidewalk.

Loin suggested possibly integrating the town's landscape requirements into what he called a "green sidewalk," that could satisfy both needs.

Not a well-received idea by everyone on the board, pedestrian traffic space is one element of the site plan that will be taken up again at yet another continuation of the hearing later in August.

According to Savaria's traffic study, there would be minimal impact to Shepard Road, though concerns peaked when he explained that regardless of what type of business goes in the 173 Main St. space, it will have an adverse impact on people attempting to turn left out of Fairview Park Road, heading toward Southbridge on Route 131.

"The user's experience at that intersection is going to get worse," Savaria said. "Delays are going to increase, you're going to get increased cueing," or lines of cars waiting to make turns.

Savaria said that type of situation makes motorists anxious and more likely to turn during smaller gaps in the traffic flow, increasing the risk of potential accidents.

Ali Khorasani, an engineer hired by Bertin Engineering who was also charged with conducting a traffic study of the area, said the traffic would not be as bad as Savaria speculated since the service station will not generate the same volume of cars moving in and out of the location as a busy night at Rom's would have in the past.

A point of contention that several people in the audience had with Khorasani's study was that it did not take tractor-trailer truck traffic into consideration.

Khorasani explained, "We try to analyze the worst-case scenario, when there's the most traffic on the road." Those peak traffic hours, which were studied at 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. during one midweek day and 11 a.m. 1 p.m. on a Saturday, are the least likely times to see large trucks on that section of road.

"The majority of truck traffic will be of peak hours when there aren't as many cars on the road," Khorasani said.

For residents of Fairview Park Road, that bit information sounded more neglectful that informative, as they have to contend with large trucks on Route 131 at all hours of the day, not just rush hours.

Resident Timothy Grant said it takes him up to four minutes to turn out Fairview Park Road as it is, and is even more concerned for the safety of his two small children, anticipating the back entrance to the Shaw's plaza, which empties onto his road, becoming the favored entrance of people looking to avoid backups on 131.

Very familiar with public safety concerns in Sturbridge, Grant said the intersection has a history of being dangerous and that added congestion would only compound that problem.

"Being a dispatcher in this town, how many accidents have we seen with people coming down the hill?" Grant rhetorically asked. "People can't stop. I remember when there used to be a police officer directing traffic there."

Later in the meeting, Grant made it clear that he did not believe the Planning Board was taking residents' concerns about traffic serious enough.

"You guys make light of the traffic issues, but you don't live there," he said.

Chairman of the Planning Board Sandra Gibson-Quigley responded by saying, "We understand that coming out of Fairview Park Road, and Shepard Road, is very difficult," but that traffic will increase regardless of the business that goes in that space. Gibson-Quigley went on to explain that the board is still in the process of gathering all of the information about the location and the proposal, traffic related and otherwise, before making any kind of decision.

Former Sturbridge Firefighter Dan Macumber of Hillside Drive presented the Planning Board with a petition signed by more than 200 Sturbridge residents opposing the station based on what he said, are merely safety concerns.

Loin pointed out though that Macumber's petition was available at other local gas stations, including Jack's Gas on Route 131, which has continually raised issues with the JCJ proposal, a would be competitor, throughout the long life of this public hearing. Furthermore, Loin indicated that his wife was asked to sign the petition recently when she stopped to refuel at Jack's.

An additional eyebrow-raiser was the fact that the current site plan and one which was submitted to MassHighway do not show the same curb cut locations, an issue that will also have to be worked out by the next time all the parties meet.

That meeting will occur on Tuesday, Aug. 11, where the MassHighway plan, pedestrian walkways, sewer connection and other aspects of the project will be further discussed.

"I think the Aug. 11 meeting is a reasonable time to have everything complete on our part," Loin said. "Next week I think the traffic issues could be hammered out."

The Aug. 11 public hearing continuation will begin at 8:15 p.m. at the Sturbridge Senior Center.

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

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