Micky Bedell | BDN
Larry Adams stands in his backyard next to a tree line where a two-lane limited access highway is slated to be built. Adams and his wife, Mary, have made fighting the project their life’s work. I die a little bit every time another step in the process is made, he said.
BREWER, Maine — When Ken and Jo-Ann Arbo moved into their home in Eddington 22 years ago, they thought they found the perfect place to live.
“I hunt right there. I fish out there. I snowmobile out there,” Ken Arbo said of the woods and fields near the couple’s home. “That is why we moved out there.”
Now the Arbos face the real possibility of moving again.
Their Lambert Road home is within the path of the controversial I-395/Route 9 connector, a proposed two-lane road from Brewer to Eddington meant to ease heavy truck traffic and improve safety on nearby routes 46 and 1A, while also creating a more direct link from Canada to the U.S. highway system.
The Arbos and seven other homeowners in the area face losing their homes through eminent domain to make way for the connector. All told, an estimated 54 other properties in Brewer, Eddington and Holden will be affected, according to plans posted on the state’s website about the $61 million project.
The connector has been in planning stages for 16 years, a lengthy period that has the Arbos and others raising questions about the state’s communication about the plans and whether the project’s initial aims — to reduce truck traffic in Brewer and streamline the connection between the U.S. and Canadian highways — still are justified.
The state admits that traffic increases on Route 9 east of Eddington have been significantly lower than projections, due in large part to the 2008-09 recession.
But the Maine Department of Transportation said recent data show an uptick in traffic, further indicating the project is necessary. The state’s revised projections, however, show a significant variance of possible traffic volumes extending to 2045.
The state also makes the case the connector will increase traffic safety. Data included in the project study indicate several intersections within the area to be served by the connector have higher-than-normal crash rates.
Data aside, the Arbos and others who live along the proposed connector route are upset by what they say is the state’s apparent disregard for those affected.
Ken Arbo said he had not been contacted the Department of Transportation about the project and its effect on his property.
“It comes out in the paper before we even know about it,” Jo-Ann Arbo said, referring to a Bangor Daily News article about a controversial regional transportation board endorsement of the project last month.
“I didn’t even realize what was going on,” said Holden resident Richard Hatch, who stands to lose his backyard to the project.
Brewer resident Bill Butterfield, who returned to his hometown a decade ago and bought a house on Woodridge Road, said the planning process and opportunity for public comment have been confusing at best.
The state’s preferred route, which would be about 300 feet from his property’s boundary, was eliminated twice during the planning process only to be brought back.
“It’s the uncertainty. ‘Yes, it’s in consideration. No, it’s not,”’ he said. “My issue is with the process and lack of thought.”
Butterfield said he has issued public and written comments in opposition to the project, apparently to no effect.
“I don’t necessarily think my voice was being heard,” Butterfield said. “I feel like the result has already been determined. I think the process has been broken.”
Jonathan Nass, deputy director of the Department of Transportation, said the state has taken great care to consider the concerns of residents, pointing out there have been 20 public advisory committee meetings, three public meetings and one public hearing on the project over the years.
“MaineDOT has listened many times to residents that have submitted comments to us and responded to those comments,” Nass wrote in an email, noting the project website includes a 332-page document consisting of meeting records, public comments and state responses.
The state’s preferred route for the connector — known as 2B-2 — would extend I-395 where it ends at Wilson Street in Brewer and roughly follow the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with 4.2 miles of rebuilt Route 9.
The plan, which underwent several changes and drew opposition from affected local governments over the years, moved forward during a controversial meeting March 25.
At the meeting in Brewer, members of the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System’s policy committee said they felt forced to approve a new three-year plan that includes the I-395/Route 9 connector after being told by state officials that if they didn’t they would risk losing $57 million in regional road project funding this year.
The Department of Transportation amendment approved reluctantly by the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System committee provides $250,000 from the $57 million to prepare preliminary engineering and right-of-way documents for the connector.
Yet, during that meeting, both state and federal transportation officials deferred discussion on the continued merits of the project, which rankled officials.
“We definitely got the impression that they believe the debate is over and it’s time to start building the road,” Brewer City Manager Steve Bost said. “I suggested that MDOT revisit the data supporting the project, given the changes that have taken place in the region which impact truck traffic [such as the declining paper industry]. I am not aware of any more public hearings on this issue, so this seemed the only forum available.”
Opponents have held forums that attempted to stop the project. The Brewer City Council voted unanimously in opposition to the roadway. The Holden Town Council also voted against it. Eddington residents have voted against the plan and community leaders have spent years requesting and even suing for information about it. With a change in leadership last year, however, Eddington selectmen voted 3-2 to support the connector.
The planned route will go under two existing roads — Eastern Avenue and Mann Hill Road — and four bridges will be added over Lambert Road, Levenseller Road, Felts Brook and Eaton Brook. Eastbound traffic on Route 9 will hit a stop sign where it connects with the new route.
There are no access points to the two-lane road planned between the I-395 interchange and the Route 9 intersection.
Rights-of-way needed for the roadway will exceed 163 acres, with properties along the route losing between half an acre to 20.19 acres, with most averaging two and four acres, according to the plans.
The assessed value of those potentially displaced properties and residences range from approximately $50,000 to $340,000, with the majority between approximately $147,000 and $323,000.
The Department of Transportation project manager Nathan Howard said the best resource for understanding how property acquisition works is the department’s Land Owner’s Guide to the Acquisition Process.
“Generally, property rights for MaineDOT projects are acquired by eminent domain, in accordance with state and federal laws and Constitutional provisions,” the guide states.
“When the MaineDOT acquires a private property right by eminent domain, the owner must receive ‘just compensation.’”
“Just compensation” is determined through the appraisal process, utilizing the principle of “Fair Market Value,” the guide states.
Even with the recent activity, the project has a long way to go, with an estimated completion date of 2025. But the acquisition of property would begin sooner.
“Assuming a multi-year construction process, property acquisition would likely begin several years prior to 2025,” Nass wrote in an email. “We do have the ability to acquire property earlier upon request from the landowner.”
All of which leaves property owners affected by the route faced with having to move or living near a busy road.
The ripple effects of the planned connector already have started, Bost, the Brewer city manager, said recently.
Since the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System vote, “the assessing department has been getting all kinds of calls from residents and real estate agents” asking for an update on the roadway, he said.
One real estate agent stopped by his office and said a buyer got cold feet after learning the project would be near the home he wanted to buy.
“They’ve got to disclose it,” Bost said, referring to home sellers. “Now, everyone is in a state of limbo.”
When it hits Holden, the connector will run directly through Hatch’s property. He bought his “forever home” in 2003 after living near Broadway Park in Bangor for years.
“It’s coming right through my backyard,” he said, while out walking his dog. “Our bedroom is on that side of the house. I can’t imagine how we’re going to be able to sleep at night.”
“It’s a nice, peaceful neighborhood,” Hatch said. “That will all change. It’s going to ruin the property.”
The connector will cut the adjacent Lakeman family parcel on Levenseller Road in Holden nearly in half, according to Steve Lakeman, owner and operator of Lakeman & Sons salvage yard.
“It’s awful,” Lakeman said. “This land has been in the Lakeman family forever. This [company] incorporated in 1965 and I don’t know what it’s going to do to the business. It’s not good.”
Larry and Mary Adams, who live about 100 feet from the project’s line near its crossing with Eastern Avenue in Brewer, have made fighting the project their life’s work.
“We don’t know the full impact,” Larry Adams said, sitting at his kitchen table as his wife leaned against the wall. “We do know they are going to be blasting. They are going to go under Eastern Avenue 40 feet. We don’t know what that will do to our septic. We’re worried about our water and our foundation. I can’t even start to imagine how bad the noise will be, or the smells.”
“There are 22 properties in Brewer affected by this. We’re all losers,” Mary Adams said.
Larry Adams, who has filed 57 pages of questions and concerns about the project that are part of the state’s record, said the reason 2B-2 is back on the table is it had fewer vernal pools than the other identified routes.
“It’s neverending,” Adams said. “For 16 years this has been hanging over us.”
“I die a little bit every time” another step in the process is made, he said.
Nass of the Department of Transportation said he understands the frustration voiced by those affected by the connector.
“With a project of this size not everyone will be pleased with the outcome and final decision, however, we stand by the process and the decision that Alternative 2B-2 is the preferred alternative and the only one that could be constructed since it is the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA) as determined by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Nass said in an email.
Meanwhile, Ken Arbo said he has not given up hope that he will be offered a fair price for his home in Eddington.
“We’ll see what happens,” Arbo said.
By Nok-Noi Ricker, BDN Staff
Posted April 10, 2016, at 9:42 p.m.