Quechee Firms Up Plans for Gorge Fence

  • While enroute to Woodstock, Vt., bus tour participants stop at the Quechee Gorge in Quechee, Vt., to take a look on a foggy afternoon on October 9, 2015. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Sarah Priestap

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/24/2018 11:47:15 PM
Modified: 7/25/2018 12:56:02 PM

Quechee — Workers will erect a 9-foot-tall, green chain-link fence by the end of the summer on both sides of the Quechee Gorge Bridge, state officials concluded at a Tuesday night meeting about what the temporary barrier would look like.

The fence, which is next in a series of measures to prevent suicides and improve safety at the gorge, will be curved at the top and have several 2-foot by 5-inch cutouts to provide a better view for sightseers.

The decision to go with the chain-link fence as opposed to another type of fencing was met with opposition from a few people who said it would detract from what the gorge has to offer. Among those opposed to a chain-linked fence was Kip Miller, the longtime owner of Quechee Gorge Gifts and Sportswear.

Miller urged officials to take a “long breath” and create something once and for all for that area. A long-term plan that will incorporate a permanent barrier wall, or a net below, is in the works, but won’t be completed until 2022. Therefore, a temporary solution is necessary, officials say.

“This is a window to Vermont. I think you want to do a good job ... and take a long breath and do it right,” Miller said.

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, shared Miller’s point, from an aesthetics standpoint.

“We have to live with it for four years,” Clarkson said, while in the same breath acknowledging the importance of individuals’ safety and quick construction. “The chain-link is a lot less attractive for the people who are coming to see (the gorge).”

Clarkson and others at the meeting at Hartford Town Hall thought officials from the Vermont Agency of Transportation should continue to examine another fencing option, specifically one that also was presented at Tuesday night’s hearing.

That fence, a welded wire fabric fence, has vertical and horizontal steel rods, something that could improve views for tourists.

VTrans Project Manager J.B. McCarthy said some downfalls to that type of fencing are that a person could probably climb it easier and there is an inability to curve it at the top. He also said he wasn’t sure how much the welded wire fabric fence would cost, as opposed to the $175,000 chain-link fence.

Clarkson pressed McCarthy on whether the chain-link fence would actually prove safer than the alternative, and asked McCarthy to come back with statistics on how effective the welded wire fabric fence was on a bridge in Ithaca, N.Y., a photograph of which frequently was referred to in a PowerPoint slide on Tuesday night.

“You did a lot of work on one option and not a lot of work on the other options,” Clarkson said.

After a meeting about the project in June, McCarthy said he left with the impression that residents wanted the quickest option, so he plugged away with plans for the chain-link fence, which he said can be put together and installed quickly.

Further exploring another fencing option would slow down the project’s schedule and would push the late-September completion date back to an undetermined date, McCarthy said.

That didn’t sit well with some, including Dave Cooper, whose son, Derek, died by suicide at the gorge in 2011.

“Four people died there this year — so far,” Cooper said sternly, shifting his body toward the two dozen people in attendance. “This is what can be done now, in the budget, with the time constraints.”

At least one person present said that an individual contemplating suicide could still find a way to follow through at the gorge, regardless of whether a fence was there or not.

Cooper fired back.

“There are 75 ways to kill yourself at the gorge. I don’t want it to be too easy,” he said, adding that addressing other problem spots can be worked into the long-term plan.

No formal vote on the chain-link fence was taken, but at the end of the 90-minute hearing, the decision to move forward with that option became apparent.

The temporary fence and subsequent measures stem from legislation passed in 2016 requiring officials to implement suicide-prevention measures and improve pedestrian and first responder safety in response to suicides and other incidents.

Most recently, on July 18, firefighters retrieved the body of a 27-year-old Massachusetts man from the gorge. Officials also retrieved victims in January, February and May.

The gorge has been the site of 14 suicides between 2007 and July of this year, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten previously said. He and Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney attended the meeting and said that the height of the fence and the curved top are important deterrents.

“The more time we add in, the more time people can reconsider,” Kasten said. “We have intercepted a lot of folks from phone calls we have received from passersby.”

The temporary fence follows another prevention measure officials took in January 2017, when they installed two kiosks with a call button that rings a 24/7 counseling service offered by Lebanon-based Headrest. They also installed signs that read “You Matter” and list the phone number for a crisis hotline.

At Tuesday’s meeting, there was talk of erecting a sign letting people know that the chain-link fence is only temporary, as well as separate signage directing sightseers to other scenic view sections at the popular natural attraction.

“It is very welcomed progress on the project,” said Hartland resident Gregory Burke, a physician who has watched the topic closely for decades.

“In my mind, we need to get something up now,” Town Manager Leo Pullar said toward the end of the meeting. “We don’t want to get paralysis by analysis.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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