Neighbors, panel put a halt to plans for second Watmaugh Bridge
The county's plan to build a second Watmaugh Bridge next to the current bridge didn't make it past the June 7 Landmarks Commission meeting.
The county and neighbors of the bridge have been at odds for more than a year since the county proposed building a new bridge to replace the 1929 structure. The county floated a plan prior to the recent Landmarks Commission meeting that would build a parallel bridge and leave the existing bridge in place for pedestrian and bike traffic.
But that didn't fly with the bridge neighbors, especially since the county was talking about using eminent domain for the new bridge. In addition, the new right of way would cut through the front yard of Ken Niles, taking out more than 20 large trees and coming within 20-feet to 30-feet of Niles' front door.
The Niles family and other Valley residents asked the county to kill the parallel bridge plan and retrofit the existing bridge.
The county did shelve parallel bridge idea, but is going on with plans to build a new bridge instead of retrofitting the existing bridge.
"We're proceeding with plans to replace the bridge," said Tom O'Kane, deputy director of the county's Transportation and Public Works Department. "We're not going to retrofit."
O'Kane said public works wanted feedback from the Landmarks Commission on the plan. The item, which was the only agenda item, was an informational item meaning it wouldn't be voted upon.
"You have to look at an option even if you discard it," he said.
Public works will return to the Landmarks Commission later in the summer with a scaled back plan on the original replacement bridge. The bridge proposed more than a year ago would have been 40-feet wide with two 12-foot lanes.
O'Kane said the redrawn bridge, which would use the trusses and other elements of the current bridge, would be reduced to 30-feet wide. Currently, the bridge is 22-feet wide.
"We're running out of options - and we're running out of money," O'Kane said. "We're a year into the project and we still don't have an RPF (request for proposals) out yet."
Nancy Simpson, the 1st District representative on the Landmarks Commission and a retrofit proponent, called the parallel bridge "unacceptable."
"The eminent domain bridge is unacceptable," she said. And she cited the historic homes in the area that would be affected and the felling of 20 landmark trees. "Both the Niles and Sangiacomo properties would be affected."
"Building a parallel bridge would be demolition by neglect on the current bridge," she added. This is because the county would no longer maintain the bridge.
Simpson also said Niles wasn't appropriately notified about the bridge when they received an email from PRMD (the county's Permit and Resource Management Department).
Simpson said about 30 Valley residents were at the meeting and a number spoke out against the parallel bridge plan including Betsy and Ken Niles and their two sons; Lorraine Wedekind, whose driveway is at the western edge of the bridge; and Dan Peterson, a historian and founding member of the Landmarks Commission.
"The problem remains that the county doesn't see retrofit as an option," Simpson said. "And a second bridge is not acceptable." And she said the county needs to better communicate with the bridge's neighbors.
Public Works' O'Kane said the department has decided to get the speed limit lowered to 35 miles an hour and that added signage on both ends of Watmaugh (Broadway on the east and Arnold Drive on the west) would be altered to warn truckers that the bridge has restrictions.
But he said Public Works would be back to the Landmarks Commission with a proposal sometime this summer - probably at the panel's August meeting.
"We've always intended to follow the process," he said. "But we want to get this out as soon as possible."