Families lose bid to buy, close roadway in Laurel due to public safety concerns

By Tony E. Windsor

Two families living in the 11th Street area in Laurel have lost a bid to take over a portion of that roadway as a matter of "public safety." During an August Laurel Mayor and Council meeting, Patches and Rachel Hill and Ben and Barbara Hudson, who all reside on West Street, made a plea to purchase a portion of 11th Street which they feel presents a threat to the safety of their children.

Patches Hill appeared before the Laurel Council on behalf of both families and expressed a desire to take control of the portion of 11th Street which intersects with West Street, up to the rear of the adjoining properties. Hill said among the families' concerns is that there are no posted speed limits and visibility is often poor. He said young children playing on their properties are at risk from traffic that uses the roadway.

Hill said he cannot understand why motorists use the road given the fact that there is paved roadway available for access. "This is basically a dirt path," he said. "I can't understand why people even use it. Most people don't even know it is in the town. The unwanted traffic often comes through at excessive speeds and we are not even sure the lane is wide enough for a vehicle. This has caused people to travel on our private properties where our children play."

He said a curve in the roadway makes visibility difficult as well. "Through the years, we have requested limited town services and would happily take over maintenance of the street," Hill said. "We would prefer to obtain ownership of the street and close it from public use. Please consider affording us the opportunity to move forward with this purchase."

After Hill made the request and it became public, other residents who reside in the area of 11th Street came to Laurel Council chambers to express opposition to the closing of 11th Street. The reasons for opposing the closing were varied and also reflected concerns about public safety and challenged the idea that 11th Street posed safety concerns to children playing in the area, One residents who lives on Jackson Street said closing 11th Street in the area proposed by Hill would create a safety issue should an emergency such as a fire occur on Jackson Street because 11th Street provides an alternative exit.

There was also concern from some families who felt the safety issues the Hills and Hudsons referred to regarding their children playing near 11th Street are no different than issues facing families living on "any corner property in America."

Bill Hearn of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department was at the council meeting and said that 11th Street provides access for emergency vehicles. "There is a really big field back off 11th Street and should there be a field fire and that roadway is closed it would be a problem," he said. "If that field should be developed and homes built there and a fire broke out we would be in a jam."

An issue that garnered opposition to the closing of 11th Street from even city officials was the fact that there was property off 11th Street that could be developed in the future and losing access to the property would be detrimental to the future growth of the town.

The request for closing 11th Street was ultimately turned over for review to a special committee appointed by Mayor Shwed which was made up of three council members. The committee reviewed the request and recommended that the town deny Hill's request to purchase and close any portion of the street.

The committee cited concerns that closing the street would hamper access to any developing properties at the end of 11th Street and would also create potential safety concerns should the fire department need to respond to emergencies at existing properties near Van Buren Street and those that may develop in the area of 11th Street in the future. The committee did recommend that the town should place "Children at Play" signs at both ends of 11th Street and place 11th Street on a list of roadways needing improvements, including paving.

At a public meeting following the release of the committee's report, Hill addressed the council and said that if the town would opt to close the street he would withdraw the request to purchase the street. He said he wanted to make sure that the committee's decision was not based on the town losing control over the street. This would allow the town to close the street and only allow emergency vehicles to access it. It would also enable the town to maintain control in the event of property development.

Councilman Chris Calio, who chaired the special committee reviewing the 11th Street closing, said the committee did not take into consideration the option of not selling off rights to 11th Street. He said the town may want to maintain ownership of the street and consider closing it for safety reasons, only allowing access by emergency vehicles.

Shwed said he felt that closing 11th Street may set a dangerous precedent that could impact decisions about road closing in the future. He said the town has a responsibility to protect children and the environment; however, there are many streets in the town where children play and should the town close 11th Street for this reason, the precedent may become an issue. He also cited concerns about future development. "If we start closing roads, it could result in issues for future development of surrounding property," he said.

Shwed pointed to the fact that the committee made an informed decision after reviewing the pros and cons associated with closing the street and denied the request. Councilman Don Phillips said he is also concerned with setting precedents and feels that even taking action to pave 11th Street will only increase the amount of traffic that uses that roadway. He added that the responsibility for the safety of children playing in and near roads and not staying on their home property lies with the parents.

"This roadway is no different than any other street in the town and I do not want to set a precedent," said Phillips. He then made a motion to accept the committee's recommendation to deny the request to close and sell 11th Street. The measure passed unanimously among all council members present. Councilwoman Robin Fisher was not in attendance at the meeting.

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