Hartford to consider shutdown of Wilder Park and Ride following complaints

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-19-2023 4:28 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The Selectboard will decide this month whether to close the Wilder park-and-ride commuter lot due to ongoing complaints from neighbors about illegal or nuisance activities.

At Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting, acting Town Manager Gail Ostrout recommended temporarily closing the lot until a plan is devised to address safety concerns raised by residents, who say the lot is frequently used for illegal dumping, loitering and illicit drug use.

“Currently the way the park and ride is being utilized is not safe for the community, and it’s not a good use of resources or the staff in the town,” Ostrout told board members.

The lot, which is town-owned, is located in a mixed-use area of businesses and residential homes on Hartford Avenue, near the intersection with Bugbee Street, which many motorists use to access Interstate 91.

Ostrout said the Hartford Police Department has dedicated “an exceptional amount of labor” to calls from residents reporting suspicious or illegal activities in the lot.

Between July 2022 and April 2023, officers made 47 visits to the lot, according to Police Chief Gregory Sheldon. The majority of these stops were responding to calls from neighbors and passers-by reporting violations.

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Most of those reports “are unfounded,” Sheldon told the Valley News.

But Sheldon confirmed that illegal activities such as littering and camping in vehicles have occasionally occurred.

In November, town officials ordered the impoundment of a Fleetwood Southwind motorhome that had occupied space in the park and ride lot for several weeks at a time. Administrators said there had been complaints for months about loud or rude behavior from the vehicle’s occupants, littering and reports of aggressive-acting dogs.

The lot abuts a deep ravine where people have dumped garbage, as well as large items such as washing machines, Sheldon said.

According to Ostrout, the Hartford Avenue parking lot typically serves about 10 or fewer vehicles on weekdays and slightly more on the weekends.

Registered vehicles are allowed to remain for up to seven days, though sleeping in vehicles is prohibited.

Several residents at Tuesday’s meeting supported closing the lot, either temporarily or permanently.

“I feel it’s one of those things that shouldn’t be in a neighborhood,” resident Marie Alvin said. “Most of your park and rides are right off the interstate. And they seem to generate issues.”

Alvin noted that activity at the lot has “calmed” as a result of the police monitoring, though she would prefer not to burden the department with that additional responsibility.

Resident Heidi Duto said the lot’s lack of lighting allows people to conceal their nighttime activities, such as illicit drug use, which Duto asserted is a frequent occurrence.

“I think it’s a great idea to just shut that place down,” Duto said. “Because it’s just one more place to have people sleeping in their vehicles or dealing drugs out of.”

Ostrout said the town could consider installing street lights or video cameras to help improve public safety. But these solutions will require study to mitigate privacy concerns or the impacts of light pollution on neighboring homes.

Closing lot permanently is also an option, though Ostrout said that will require extensive vetting.

“I certainly don’t recommend that we close it permanently at this point,” Ostrout told board members. “I’m asking for a discussion to close it temporarily so we can take a breath and have a (lengthier) discussion about what alternatives would be best.”

The Selectboard plans to vote on temporarily closing the lot at its next meeting on May 30, which will be held at Town Hall at 6 p.m.

Downtown White River Junction provides a number of other free parking options for commuters, including all-day parking at the municipal lot at 97 S. Main St.

Some options, such as on-street parking or the municipal lot at 57 Village Square, post limits of two to four hours during business hours on Monday through Saturday.

Ostrout said the town consulted the Vermont Agency of Transportation, which has the right of way at the park and ride, for state approval to discuss closing the lot.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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