Westport Board of Selectmen roundup: Hazardous corner, name change, big school bills loom

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 2/12/21

WESTPORT — Board of Selectmen members said they still want to push forward with safety improvements to a dangerous Route 177 intersection, but not all are thrilled about the sudden need to use …

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Westport Board of Selectmen roundup: Hazardous corner, name change, big school bills loom

Posted

WESTPORT — Board of Selectmen members said they still want to push forward with safety improvements to a dangerous Route 177 intersection, but not all are thrilled about the sudden need to use Chapter 90 roadway improvement money to pay some of the cost.

Town Administrator Tim King told the board that he met with the state Department of Transportation a year ago to discuss safety improvements on Route 77 at the junction of Robert and Tickle roads. Those might include a roundabout design to help slow and control traffic.

Subsequently the legislature approved money to pay for engineering and design work. Due to timing problems, the engineering firm was unable to complete the study before the funds expired.

Instead, Mr. King proposed dipping into the town’s allotment of state Chapter 90 road money to pay for the study, adding that, in the meantime, he is hopeful that the legislature can renew the expired study money.

Board member Valcourt said he found that idea “very distasteful … I’m sure those Chapter 90 funds have been earmarked for other projects. Where are they coming from?”

He said he objects to using road improvement money meant for such things as road and culvert repairs “to pay for a project that was supposed to be paid for with a grant?” He said he wanted to hear from the Highway Department about the impact and whether the highway surveyor thinks this is a good idea.

Board member Shana Shufelt said that while use of the money means Westport probably won’t be able to do another worthwhile road job, the Route 177 work “is an important project. It is a dangerous intersection.”

She added that, “I don’t love the way we handle Chapter 90 funding. I do think we need to have a more thoughtful and engaged (way to determine) what projects we spend out Chapter 90 money on.”

The board voted 4-1 (Mr. Valcourt voting no) to approve the use off Chapter 90 money on the Route 177 engineering work.

 

Covid update

Westport had seen 1,195 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of February 1, the town’s public health director Matt Armendo told selectmen. The town remains in the high risk category, “but the data is improving.”

As of that date, three residents were in the hospital, down one from the previous week, and no new fatalities were reported over the previous two weeks.

Today (Feb. 1) marks the first day of Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination plan, he said, meaning that residents age 75 and older may now sign up to be vaccinated. For detailed information on how to sign up and where to get the shots, visit the town’s Board of Health website or the mass.gov website and click on the ‘Where can I get my vaccination’ tab.

The Board of Health has applied to the Mass. Department of Health for doses of the Maderna vaccine, Mr. Armendo said, “but DPH replied that Maderna will not be available until late February and even then (supplies) are expected to be limited.”

In the meantime, he said that Westport is partnering with Dartmouth to offer vaccination clinics at Dartmouth High School. Dates and times cannot be announced yet (as of Feb. 1) until it can be confirmed that vaccines will be available. Those schedules, and a list of items to bring to the clinic, will be posted to the town Board of Health website.

 

Coastal Healing actions

Selectmen agreed to enter into negotiations with Coastal Healing (marijuana sales and production) for a medical marijuana host agreement. That agreement, between the company and a board of selectmen, is seen as critical for the company to obtain final state approval for its already-built facility.

Once the agreement is worked out, it will be posted on the town website.

Also, the board voted unanimously to send a new set of zoning-related marijuana rules to Town Meeting that would offer voters three options:

1. Much tighter zoning for both medical and non-medical marijuana sales, limiting both to two areas along Route 6. This option is endorsed by the Planning Board which prepared the proposed rules.

2. A zoning ban of non-medical marijuana sales anywhere in town.

3. If option 2 passes, allowing any facility that has already won Planning Board approval (Coastal Healing was recently approved for its Route 6 location).

A possible fourth option is being considered by the Planning Board to deal with worries that, should option 1 be rejected, improved zoning rules for medical marijuana sales would be lost and such facilities could again be placed in any part of Westport zoned for business.

Selectman Brian Valcourt said he supports option 1.

Selectman Steven Ouellette said he agrees with sending the options to Town Meeting “but I definitely have issues” with some of the proposals. He said he envisioned the Route 6 Science and Technology District being used for science and technology, not marijuana. And he said he shares a caller’s concerns about bunching all of the marijuana business in the town’s north end.

Disability beach access

Selectmen voted to support the Commission on Disability’s efforts to improve handicapped access improvements at Knubble Beach. 

Commission Chairman Brian Gallagher said the commission is working on ways to stabilize the parking area and the area leading to where the beachfront mobility mats are installed “to make it more stable and accessible for people using canes, crutches and wheelchairs.”

They are considering Geogrids, he said, but are not yet sure how those would hold up in these areas of moving sand and wave wash. They are also in the early stages of finding the funds to pay the estimated $3,000 to $5,000 cost of the Geogrids.

Our Lady of Grace voting

Having Precinct A voters cast their ballots at Our Lady of Grace Church worked well in the last election, and selectmen voted unanimously to use that polling place for all future elections.

The switch was prompted by Covid-19 concerns that the previous site, the American Legion Hall, is too small to handle crowds and social distancing.

Board members said the church also offers more parking, along with better access and facilities.

Bristol Aggie, Diman: Big bills coming

With both Bristol County Regional Agricultural High School and Diman Regional Vocational Tech embarking on rebuilding projects, the board discussed the looming impact on taxpayers for the town’s share of the costs. The Bristol Aggie job is estimated at $104 million; the Diman project will be much more than that.

Board members agreed unanimously to send an article to Town Meeting that would seek to make Westport’s payments through “excludable” debt (which wouldn’t be counted against the town’s Prop 2.5 cap).

Without excludable debt, Town Administrator Tim King said, the town’s annual payments (estimated at over $160,000 per year based on the number of Westport students) would “put a huge burden on our fiscal year 2022 budget and future year budgets.”

“It is a tax increase and people aren’t going to like that,” board member Shana Shufelt said, but without using excludable debt, the budget impact would be “devastating” —the equivalent of losing three employee positions.

“This one is relatively small, the Diman School project is significantly larger. Do we have any knowledge of when that is going to happen?” Mr. King was asked.

Mr. King replied that Diman is still going through a feasibility study so the town won’t know what it will be expected to pay for at least a year or so.

Selectmen to Select Board

The board again voted unanimously to ask Town Meeting voters to change the name of Board of Selectmen to Select Board.

A similar vote was taken last year but the article wound up being dropped from the Town Meeting warrant during efforts to shorten the meeting due to Covid-19 worries.

Board member Steven Ouellette said then that it makes sense (and shows respect) in an age when the board membership is no longer exclusively male — two of Westport’s five current members are women.

And, he said, many towns across the Commonwealth have already made the switch.

Bits of budget good news

Amidst all of the budget worries, Town Administrator King reported some pieces of good fiscal news for the town.

• The town’s medical insurance plan provider, South Mass Health Group, has voted to increase premiums “by only two percent,” Mr. King said. 

“That’s good news,” a lot of groups are seeking bigger increases.

And the provider also approved a “premium holiday” for the month of May, meaning that town employees will see bigger take-home paychecks in that month.

• The superintendent of Diman Regional Vocational High School told the administrator that Westport’s tuition bill for the 120 or so Westport students who attend will be $1,885,394.

“That is very good news.”

He said the amount is not only well below his initial estimate of $2.2 million, but is also below this year’s bill of $2,049,370.

Comings and goings

The board voted unanimously to:

• Appoint Michelle Donovasn as a full-time Westport police officer.

• Appoint Scott M. Boyer to serve as a part-time emergency 911 dispatcher. Mr. Ouellette said there is a frequent need to fill shifts and that items vital to have experienced dispatchers available. If one can’t be found, a dispatcher who has just completed a shift typically is called on to work a second straight shift.

• Accept, with regret, the July 9 retirement of Susan Branco, director of the Westport Free Public Library (see separate story).

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