A discussion about Old Mill Road at last Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting highlighted the many challenges and dangers presented by the narrow, curvy, roller coaster-like road.
“Part of the problem is the solution may make the problem worse,” said First Selectman Gayle Weinstein. “We’re just trying to figure out what will make the road safer.”
Residents of Old Mill Road have been complaining to the police department and the Police Commission in recent months about safety issues on the road, which connects Georgetown Road (Rt. 57) to Norfield Road (Rt. 53). It is often used by commuters as a cut-through to avoid traffic back-ups in Weston Center, especially during peak commuter times in the mornings and evenings.
The road, which becomes Cobbs Mill Road at the Weston/Wilton town line, has a posted speed limit of just 15 m.p.h. on the Weston section. Police Chief John Troxell acknowledged drivers often exceed that, despite increased enforcement efforts.
“It’s an answer, but it’s not the answer,” Chief Troxell said of the increased police presence. “It’s definitely one of the more treacherous roads in town.”
Rick Phillips, Police Commission chairman, said stepping up enforcement on Old Mill Road only addresses speeding. However, when the commission took a closer look at the road, it realized there were other problems.
The commission asked John Conte, town engineer, to survey the road. He determined there are sightline issues, as well as issues with drainage, the width of the road, and the number of bumps — almost like moguls on a ski slope — that make travel challenging even when going the speed limit.
One suggestion Mr. Conte brought back to the Police Commission was the possibility of gating the road at the town line and making it a cul-de-sac.
Many neighbors have expressed support for this idea. However, town counsel cautioned against it.
Pat Sullivan, town attorney, said on Thursday there are many obstacles to overcome if the town wanted to make the road a cul-de-sac.
The Board of Selectmen would first have to vote to send it to a Town Meeting, which would then have to vote to approve it.
If it were to pass, virtually anyone with an interest — which, Ms. Sullivan said, would include anyone who simply drives on the road — could appeal the decision. The standard for overturning the decision is “common convenience and necessity,” she said. “It’s a very low standard.”
In addition, the town would have to get approval from the town of Wilton.
And, because it is a long and narrow road that runs along the river, access for emergency vehicles and school buses needs to be considered, Ms. Sullivan said.
“This is not a road to nowhere; people use it… It would be very complicated and time consuming” to try to close it off, and the likelihood is the town would not prevail if even one person were to lodge a legal complaint, Ms. Sullivan said.
Police Commissioner Beth Gralnick said there is yet another obstacle. There are town zoning regulations that limit the number of houses on a dead-end road to fewer than 12, and there are also limits to the length a dead-end road can be. “This is much longer than zoning allows,” Ms. Gralnick said.
Mr. Conte pointed out the road could not simply be gated; a proper cul-de-sac (80 feet in diameter) would be required.
Mr. Phillips said he believes closing off Old Mill would just move traffic elsewhere, probably making Newtown Turnpike the new cut-through.
Mr. Conte said he believes there are other options that may help alleviate some of the road’s problems.
The simplest would be to remove about 25 trees and some rocks and outcroppings that are encroaching on the road, impeding visibility and making it almost impossible for two vehicles to pass each other on some parts of the road.
Another option is to try to realign the road and flatten out the “roller coaster” effect. That would certainly improve safety, but it would require outside surveyors and contractors to complete the job.
Residents complained that flattening the road and essentially widening it by removing trees would likely exacerbate the speeding problem.
Ms. Gralnick pointed out, though, that removing trees would at least improve sightlines for most residents who have a hard time just pulling out of their driveways.
Her recommendation was to do what it takes to make the road safer by improving sightlines as soon as possible. The town can discuss other more complex options later, she said.
Chief Troxell said the state Department of Transportation (DOT) has been talking about changing the traffic lights on Weston Road at the intersections with School Road and Norfield Road, as well as the flashing light two-way stop at Newtown Turnpike.
These changes should improve traffic flow through Weston Center, especially at high volume times, Chief Troxell said, and that may help divert some of the traffic off Old Mill Road.
Selectman Dennis Tracey said, “I’m very persuaded by the recommendation of the Police Commission and the chief that cutting trees is a very important first step, and it doesn’t prevent us from addressing the speeding issue later.”
Mr. Tracey assured neighbors, though, the cul-de-sac issue is “not coming off the table.”
First Selectman Weinstein asked Mr. Conte to come back with cost estimates for removing trees he has already identified as dangerous from the side of the road.
Selectman David Muller also asked Ms. Sullivan for a list of all the potential issues the town might have if it were to try to make the road a cul-de-sac.
This week, Ms. Weinstein spoke with Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan to let him know Weston is discussing the possibility of closing off the road.
Old Mill resident Ali Farsun said, “This is not a new problem. It’s high time it was addressed. However, in the short term, if you just cut down trees, you will have people going even faster.”