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Jim Kenyon: Norwich Can't Get Over the (Speed) Hump

Published: 9/4/2016 12:02:20 AM
Modified: 9/12/2016 10:32:11 AM

Does the thought of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton occupying the White House keep you awake at night? Has the plight of Syrian refugees got you down? Are you fretting the end of summer? Then I recommend clicking onto the town of Norwich’s website or Listserv. There’s no better diversion from reality than reading about the trials and tribulations of the Upper Valley’s most self-absorbed town. (Yes, I’ve lived in Norwich for 20 years, so I plead guilty by association.)

The latest chapter of Rich People Fight About the Darndest Things involves — are your ready for this? — speed bumps.

Residents of Hopson Road, just south of Main Street, have complained to town officials that motorists are flouting the street’s 25 mph speed limit to the peril of children, walkers, joggers and family pets.

Sixteen residents, including an 8-year-old who isn’t allowed to ride his new mountain bike alone anymore because his nervous Nellie parents claim the street has become too dangerous, have asked the town to install a “speed table” or other “traffic calming feature.”

For those unfamiliar with road construction vernacular, a speed table is a strip of asphalt about 4 inches high that forces approaching motorists to slow down, or risk losing the undercarriage of their Prius.

Norwich residents have spent weeks debating the pros and cons of speed tables and inundating interim Town Manager Dave Ormiston with emails.

Some of the comments are priceless for their ability to turn a mundane road matter into a how-can-I-make-this-about-me discussion. For example:

“I’m a cyclist and the section of Hopson Road from Elm Street to Beaver Meadow (Road) is one of my favorite downhills. I would hate to start seeing speed bumps show up all over town.”

Other residents have opined that a speed bump doesn’t go far enough. They want the town to install roadside cameras to catch speeders — just like they do in Europe, one woman pointed out.

“Cameras are the way to go,” wrote a Listserv contributor.

The town’s civil libertarians fired back — and rightfully, so. “The privacy issue does not revolve solely, or even primarily, around being recorded when in a public place,” an attorney in town wrote. “The issue is that we have no control over what is done with the recordings, and who has access to them.”

If not speed tables or hidden cameras, what’s the solution?

“Stop this speed hump nonsense and start aggressively ticketing drivers,” a resident suggested.

In the past, Norwich police crackdowns have generally not been well received. Years ago, police gave a $10,000 traffic ticket to a trucker delivering sawdust to a Norwich farm for exceeding a town road’s weight limit. Not long afterward the town sold its portable truck scales and Norwich had one less police officer.

“There was a period of time when Norwich was being like Woodstock,” said Ormiston, referring to the Upper Valley’s most notorious speed trap, when we talked at his office last week. “Do we want that unfriendly reputation?”

Hopson Road residents believe they get more than their fair share of traffic because motorists trying to avoid downtown use their street as a shortcut to Route 5.

In defense of the speeders, Hopson Road is the fastest way to reach King Arthur Flour’s bakery and cafe on Route 5 when every second counts. Everyone knows that French baguettes are best served hot out of the oven.

Perhaps to prove that no assertion will go unchallenged in Norwich, the relative merits of using Hopson Road as a shortcut have become a topic of debate. On Friday’s Listserv, a resident reported that “Hopson is NOT faster even if (a) driver speeds.” And how did the resident reach this conclusion?

“I tested the routes by tracking what cars were in front of me (sometimes friends’ cars) as I decided to take Hopson Road and they went thru town. … Now, the only time I take Hopson is if I know I have a bit of extra time and want a more scenic route.”

As the guy in charge of Norwich’s day-to-day operations, Ormiston could have simply used his executive powers to grant the Hopson Road request. But to play it safe, he brought his plan to the Selectboard.

After talking with the town’s police chief and public works director, Ormiston told the board that three speed tables — not one, as residents had asked for — were needed along a half-mile stretch. “It’s an effort to try to calm the traffic on Hopson Road,” he told me. “The road is narrow, and there’s no sidewalk.”

Not all were thrilled with Ormiston’s plan, but the board agreed that it was his decision to make. (It probably would have been a little more palatable to folks around town if Selectboard member Stephen Flanders, who lives on Hopson Road, hadn’t signed the petition, thus avoiding the appearance of exerting undue influence.)

Barring a court injunction — in Norwich, it can’t be ruled out — the speed tables will be installed soon.

The $7,500 expenditure will come out of the town’s paving budget, Ormiston said. In a town with an annual municipal budget of $4.7 million and where the median family income is $136,600 (the highest in Vermont), that’s not a significant amount.

But Ormiston is still taking heat. A Listserv commentator wrote that the Selectboard “needs to rein him in NOW — you hired him and you need to manage him, or perhaps end the relationship earlier than anticipated.”

Ormiston’s contract runs until the end of January. The town is currently taking applications for a permanent town manager, but Ormiston, 50, was noncommittal when I asked him if he wanted the job.

I can’t imagine why.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure Hopson Road is where Norwich most needs a “calming feature.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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