Hartford Residents, Officials Debate Fairview Terrace’s Closing

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2018

White River Junction — Town officials are finding themselves in the midst of a public tug of war over whether the section of Gates Street that connects Fairview Terrace to the downtown area should be reopened to vehicular traffic.

“Hey, we want it open,” is one of two common viewpoints that Town Manager Leo Pullar hears from the public. Of course, the other viewpoint is: “Hey, we want it closed.”

The Selectboard closed the road in December amid concerns that continued traffic by an average of 650 vehicles each day would cause the retaining wall supporting the north side of the street to collapse.

At the time, town staff resolved to plot out their next move with the benefit of a new set of data — they planned to take a series of 11 key measurements of the wall at six-month intervals, to see how quickly the wall was shifting, if at all.

With the second set of measurements completed in May, Pullar said last week that the primary lesson the town has learned is that it lacks the equipment and expertise necessary to do the requisite measuring work.

“The measurements got wonky,” he said.

Faced with conflicting numbers that indicated the wall was shifting a lot, not at all, in unexpected directions and, in one case, uphill, Pullar said it was clear the town needed help.

“From our perspective, that was time to bring in the professionals,” he said.

Hannah Tyler, who was hired as the town’s director of public works in April, said she is developing an informal request for proposal, or RFP, and hopes to have a surveying firm identified within the next few weeks.

The key difference, she said, is that the contracted firm likely will use a piece of electronic surveying equipment known as a total station that can precisely track movement in units smaller than a tenth of an inch.

“They’ll be able to give us the data in a meaningful way,” she said.

In the meantime, she said, it seems clear that the road should remain closed to vehicles.

“The retaining wall is actually starting to fail. You can walk up to Fairview Terrace and you can see where the road is starting to break off down that bank,” she said. “Keeping cars off it is maintaining what integrity it has left.”

For years, the Selectboard has been trying to find a solution to the shifting wall that falls short of a total reconstruction, which has been estimated to come with a price tag of as much as $4.4 million and could necessitate the purchase and demolition of an occupied duplex on the corner of Gates Street and Maplewood Terrace. An alternative $1.2 million stabilization plan would buy the town an estimated 10 years.

The road has served as a convenient shortcut between the residential Fairview Terrace neighborhood and downtown White River Junction, but pedestrians who regularly navigate the steep, winding and narrow quarter-mile stretch have complained that vehicles speed past them, creating a danger.

Before the road was closed, Pullar said that after talking to nearly a dozen homeowners at the top of the hill, he was hearing mostly from people who wanted the road closed. Now that it has been closed, he said, his phone is ringing from people who want to know how long it will take to get it reopened.

Just as there’s a diversity of opinion on whether the road should remain closed, there’s also a diversity of opinion over whether the wall is truly in danger of collapsing.

Fairview Terrace resident Barbara Nielsen, 82, walked past the two heavy concrete Jersey barriers blocking the top of the slope, headed down to the post office late Friday morning.

“I don’t think it’s going to collapse,” she said, although, after 50 years of watching traffic speed past her home at the top of the hill, she prefers the street remains closed, for safer walking. She noted that an unbroken municipal water line runs through the ground beneath the blacktop, which suggests that the ground hasn’t shifted all that much.

But Fran Rhynhart, of Bethel, who was walking up the hill for exercise during a lunch break from her office job downtown, pointed to the sunken blacktop on the north side of the street.

“I notice it dropped a lot,” she said. When she’s in her car, Rhynhart said, it now takes her an extra two minutes to access the gas station on Sykes Mountain Avenue, but she’d rather that than share the road, which has no sidewalk, with vehicles.

Assistant Public Works Director Everett Hammond said the town has throttled back on the water running beneath the street, and has an emergency plan in place, should the cast-iron water line break beneath the pressure.

Pullar said he anticipated the surveying work would be done over a period of 12 or 18 months, at a cost of something less than $10,000, and that the funds would come from money allocated last year to carry out the closing.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.