When congestion at Stepney center is at its worst, a number of drivers seek alternate routes to get through the bottleneck, whether its cutting across oncoming traffic on Main Street while veering left to where Pepper Street runs by the cemetery, merging onto Route 25 in the opposite direction — or even driving over the grass of the historic green to pass lines waiting to enter 25 from Pepper and Green streets.
"Another thing people do is cut across the pizza parlor parking lot," Planning & Zoning Commissioner Karen Martin said, mentioning Country Pizza at the corner of Green and Main streets. "They get impatient."
Commissioner William Porter has often seen cars cut across four lanes of traffic to enter the shopping center where Rite-Aid pharmacy is.
Town officials are working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation to find a safer solution to the problem as the DOT continues to embark on intersection improvement projects along the state highway of Route 25 (Main Street).
The Planning & Zoning Commission discussed several options at its meeting Thursday. The issue will come up again in March and action is anticipated in either April or May.
According to P&Z Chairman Richard Zini, part of the state plan is to add a traffic light at the intersection of Green and Main streets, a place where drivers sometimes cut over the green to get past lines of vehicles waiting to make a left onto Route 25.
Town Engineer Scott Schatzlein presented several options for the P&Z to consider. All involved the extension of Pepper Street that is often used an alternate route around Stepney Green.
Zini said First Selectman Steve Vavrek, Police Chief John Salvatore and the Public Works Department have been involved in the planning, adding any road closures must be approved by the Town Council.
"I believe the commission was leaning toward having Pepper Street closed off," Schatzlein said. "I came up with a couple of options."
One potential solution is to discourage people from using it by adding a traffic table (a long ramp drivers must slow down to go over), putting in textured pavement and adding landscaping on either side so it feels confined and will slow people down.
"The police chief did not like the introduction of a speed table," Schatzlein said. "It's not used anywhere else in town and there are safety issues."
When a vehicle goes over a speed table too fast, Schatzlein said it could go airborne.
If the town opts to close off one end of Pepper Street, Schatzlein said there must be a way for vehicles to turn around. A cul-de-sac is the usual solution, but Schatzlein said that would cut into Stepney Green.
One alternative is to have a paved area along the green with shrubbery around it, which vehicles can pull into to turn around, Schatzlein said.
Another way is to install plastic cylinders or concrete open blocks and plant grass in it.
"I tried to find a way to save the aesthetic side of things for the green itself," Schatzlein said.
Another option is to make the stretch of Pepper Street that passes the cemetery one-way, only allowing traffic heading north to merge onto Main Street.
"Police and Public Works thought this was more appropriate," Schatzlein said.
"The chief of police is an expert," P&Z Commissioner Pat O’Hara said. "I'd follow his lead and go with plan number one."
Cathy Lindstrom, a commission alternate, also agreed on the option of making Pepper Street a one-way road.
If the town makes Pepper Street one-way, Schatzlein said it could always see how it works and consider adding textured pavement or a speed table at a later date if there are still problems.
Why Keep it Open?
Schatzlein said closing Pepper Street by Stepney Green impacts snow removal, the response of safety vehicles and school buses.
Police want the roadway to be open, because it is often used as a detour when there is an accident on Main Street, Schatzlein added.
Commissioner William Porter said, "My preference would be to close the street. But if we have to have a turnaround cutting into the green, that's unacceptable."
"That road should really be closed," said Lee Hossler, a Stepney resident whose granddaughter was in the car during an accident at that part of Main Street.
Joel Leneker, a Stepney resident, asked if ballards, which could be removed by police, firefighters and EMS personnel, could be placed at one end of Pepper Street. He also suggested granite posts or fencing on the green to discourage people from driving over the grass.
Mary Orsillo, a member of the Save Our Stepney Task Force along with Hossler and Leneker, is concerned over anymore loss of the green.
"It seems to have been chopped away and chopped away," she said. "We have to consider the community and aesthetic asset of Stepney Green. I'm concerned with anything that would impact the green. I also agree that the road is unsafe now and something needs to be done."
Zini said it is the P&Z Commission's goal for any solution to preserve Stepney Green. He said the commission "put its foot down" when the state tried to say it had no money to re-landscape the corners of the green.
Ronald Bunovsky, a Monroe resident of 40 years, asked the commission to hold off on adopting any solutions now. Rather, he prefers to wait and see how the new traffic light to be installed at the intersection of Green and Pepper streets affects traffic, before making any changes.
"Sit back and relax," Bunovsky said. "Give it time and see what happens."