Saquatucket Sidewalk Proposal Could Face Legal Challenge

by William F. Galvin
Abutters to the Saquatucket Harbor  to Bank Street sidewalk  project are protesting planned easements to relocate utility poles they say would infringe on their properties. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO Abutters to the Saquatucket Harbor to Bank Street sidewalk project are protesting planned easements to relocate utility poles they say would infringe on their properties. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – Sidewalks planned along Route 28 from Saquatucket Harbor to Bank Street are the top priority this year in the Cape Cod Regional Transportation Improvement Plan, but the project may be facing a roadblock.

A couple of property owners along a stretch of Route 28 with homes dating back to the early 1800s are expressing concerns about the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) requests for temporary and permanent easements to relocate utility poles to private properties and potentially requiring the removal of trees. The property owners have retained an attorney and are considering legal action that could slow down the timeline for the project.

“For this we apologize,” property owner Bob Nickerson said of the possibility of legal action. “None of us are trying to stop the sidewalk project, we’re trying to protect our properties. We don’t want to do the litigating thing. We want to negotiate a solution to it.”

“As you all are aware, there is an existing sidewalk from Bank Street to Snow Inn Road,” Nickerson told the select board last week. “The property owners in this section expected that the sidewalk would be repaired as it is in poor condition with little impact to those homes in the area.” He said during the preliminary design phase for the project, property owners were told there would be no impact from the new sidewalk. But MassDOT is planning to move utility poles along that stretch from the existing right-of-way to adjacent properties, Nickerson said.

A cultural district was approved for this section of Harwich Port a year ago. Nickerson referred to statutory language relating to cultural districts which emphasizes the need to “preserve and reuse historic buildings, enhance property values and foster local cultural development.” His house was built in 1796, Nickerson said.

The project consists of sidewalk installation on the south side of Route 28 from Bank Street to Saquatucket Harbor. Due to the context of the existing area and the potential for numerous negative impacts to abutters, the project only proposes a sidewalk on the south side of the road and proposes to retain the existing one-foot-wide shoulder. The project also calls for a pedestrian bridge to be installed over Carding Machine Brook, according to a MasDOT description of the project. The project is identified as an Americans With Disabilities Act retrofit.

The town hosted a public forum on the project in November 2020 where designs for the sidewalk were presented. MasDOT representatives said a secure right-of-way is necessary for the project; acquisitions in fee and permanent or temporary easements may be required. MassDOT is responsible for acquiring all needed rights in private or public lands along the state highway.

On Jan. 22 Nickerson told the select board about his frustration in trying to get an environmental report for the project showing details proposed for his property and specific information about the proposed easements.

“We provided comments to the MassDOT chief engineer, who was designated in the handout as the point of contact, via certified mail in July of 2023,” he said. “We requested project details and the environmental study for the work. We have had no response from her.”

Nickerson provided a detailed description of his efforts to get information on the project from MassDOT over a six-month period. He said Dec. 21 that property owners retained a Boston-based attorney to assist them. The attorney has learned the poles are being moved to meet Americans with Disability Act criteria, he said.

The current width of the sidewalk is six feet. The new sidewalk width is also six feet. Nickerson asserted that, therefore, the new and existing sidewalk meet ADA requirements with regard to width. The distance from the curb to the property line is a bit over eight feet, so a slight increase in sidewalk width would be much more cost effective than procuring easements, he said.

“We are pushing back and asking for answers. We have requested numerous times information from MassDOT with limited to no response. We and our neighbors will be considering further legal action that likely will slow down the timeline for the project,” he said.

“My grandfather had to give up 15 feet to the state to build Route 28 in 1902,” he added. “Now MassDOT wants another five feet to unnecessarily move the poles. I am running out of front yard.”

“All of these things are out of our control. It’s a state highway,” responded Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh.

Multiple efforts to reach MassDOT project manager Thomas Currier for comment were unsuccessful.

On Jan. 22 the Cape Cod Metropolitan Planning Commission released the proposed Transportation Improvement Plan for fiscal 2024 to 2028, and a 21-day public review and comment period is running. A virtual public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. to hear public comments and potentially vote to endorse amendments to the plan. The plan prioritizes the list of roadways, bridges and transit projects on the Cape to be implemented during the next five years.

The Saquatucket Harbor to Bank Street project is the number one prioritized project on the list. The project is expected to cost $2,561,843.