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Petition aims to keep RMV here

State plan to move it angers many

Roger Caouette, left, finds one of several employees willing to sign the petition to keep the Registry of Motor Vehicles office where it is. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
July 15, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — Not long ago, a Town Hall observer wouldn't have pictured Roger Caouette and Cathy Nikolla on the same side of a controversial issue.

But they are. They, and hundreds of other people (so far), have been trying to stoke a fire under Gov. Deval Patrick to keep the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) office in town. Not long ago, the state announced it would be moving the facility to the Charlton turnpike rest area Aug. 9.

Most of those hundreds aren't actively involved — they're signatures on an impromptu petition that Nikolla, fellow Councilor Denise Clemence and others have been leaving at local businesses, while Caouette has been pounding the pavement collecting them in person.

The issue essentially came to a head late last week when Mark Palmerino received formal notice the Registry was invoking its 30-day notice to terminate its lease, said Peter Cournoyer, Mark's brother in-law. Palmerino runs EP Realty, the landlord side of the family that owns Big Bunny, of which Cournoyer is president.

"I didn't know about that clause until a couple of weeks ago," Cournoyer said, later noting it had been 90 days in previous leases. "I think a reasonable person would've done the same thing in expecting the state to uphold the lease especially considering the renovation work we did."

That renovation, costing about $300,000, happened about 2 ? years ago, when the state signed the latest five-year lease for about $6,000 a month. RMV has been in the same place for nearly 30 years.

He said his first reaction upon finding out was to call state Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge and state Rep. Geraldo Alicea, D-Charlton, but he got basically the same response from both. They said they talked to the Registrar, who had told them, "I don't want to do this, but get me the money and I won't close it," Cournoyer recalled.

Alicea, however, assured Cournoyer he wouldn't "let this ball hit the floor."

If it does, several people said the closing would have a negative effect on Southbridge.

"Southbridge has helped Boston and now it's time for Boston to help Southbridge," Caouette said at the Registry Wednesday afternoon. He especially urged the decision-makers to "consider the citizenship and the hardship it'd create for senior citizens going to the Mass Pike."

He was referring to the facility's proposed new home, a side building of the eastbound Charlton rest area which would be accessed either from the toll road or from busy Route 20. Clemence said she visited it and thought the truck traffic going around the rest area's main building was the site's biggest danger, since anyone coming up from Route 20 has to cross it.

"Those tractor-trailers are non-stop," she said. "They're setting themselves up for a huge lawsuit."

To Lester Wilson, that makes the idea of going there "ridiculous," even if the state already owns the property.

"I'd rather see it stay here," he said. "That seems like a crazy spot because you'd have to cross lanes."

He said he's had a license since 1976 "and I got it here." Although he has lived in Southbridge 30 years, he grew up in Brookfield and noted many people from the rural towns come here.

In fact, more urban folks do, too.

"I came to this one because at the Worcester RMV you sit all day long," Auburn's Mike Murphy said. "I'd rather drive the 20 minutes than sit for three hours."

He said it was his first time in the Southbridge office and he "was very pleased" at having to wait less than five minutes. Years ago, when he lived in Washington state, he said he also preferred going to the smaller registries for the same reason.

While he was waiting, one of the employees was overheard saying, "I don't think they'll do road tests in Charlton, but they don't tell us much." But when this reporter specifically asked for information from employees, they said to contact the Boston office.

Outside, however, one RMV courier wasn't shy about stating her opinion.

"This is like the pits if we have to go on Route 20," said Charlton's Valerie Gatzke. Among other things, she observed there are few employee parking spaces there.

"Just the thought of getting in there is scary," she said. "This [Southbridge] is the best location. People can come down secondary roads to get here."

Wilson noted moving it to Charlton would make doing business far more cumbersome, mostly because it's a rather isolated location. The current office is in a regular business district, but the Charlton site would require users to drive somewhere else to do almost everything.

Furthermore, without road test capacity, people will have to go to Worcester, and he thought that could pose problems for youths who had only taken drivers' ed on the slower semi-rural roads.

Jeff Cardenas, owner of neighboring Hometown Hardware, agreed.

"I don't have kids, but if I did, I wouldn't want them to get their license in Charlton," he said, adding, "They're making it real hard on people."

He said several Registry clients a week come into his shop for plate screws and other such things, and observed that other nearby businesses likewise benefit from its presence.

Cournoyer agreed, noting out-of-town users don't generally shop at Big Bunny, but might patronize the pizza place in the complex. He estimated the office serves about 300 people daily, "and we would not have that if they were located in Charlton."

"Removing the opportunity for people to get their services locally is a disservice, I think," Cournoyer added.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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