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October 22, 2013 | 04:21 PMWALWORTH — Tensions were high Oct. 14 over DOT plans to reshape Walworth’s village square.
Dolores Pophal said residents aren’t happy with the “strong decision” the village president and trustees have taken since the beginning.
See the Regional News time line of Highway 14 events on page 3B.
“Each of you have spoken with forked tongues most of the time,” Pophal said to the board. “You’ve done it to me ... so don’t worry about my saying anything now. It’s just that I’m sorry for the public because they don’t want this highway by the school.”
Pophal is a member of the Walworth Task Force, a group of village residents created to handle DOT negotiations.
Village President David Rasmussen said Pophal should use a different forum to send personal attacks to him and the board.
“I don’t know why you (the village board) would ignore the public comments from 2009,” Pophal said. “During the comprehensive planning period ... there was no discussion about a highway going by the school.”
Since 2009, the DOT has focused on the village square and traffic flow around Heyer Park.
Current DOT plans show the highway will be changed from its current one-direction flow around the park to a nearly-straight two-way route from the northwest corner of the square to the antique mall.
Walworth School Board and the village board have disagreed on the DOT plans since February 2009, when village engineer Jamie Rybarczyk submitted a proposal to the DOT.
Rybarczyk’s proposal routed traffic through the current elementary school parking lot and razed the antique mall on the corner of Beloit and Main streets.
School Board President Kelly Freeman, also at the meeting, said everyone is concerned about the changes coming to Walworth.
“Is there any chance of having an open forum with the village board, school board, chamber of commerce, task force and citizens who would like to attend?” she asked the board. “The DOT said they are going to have a public meeting, but (at) their public meetings ... they stand by the plan and you can offer your objections and they listen and smile and that’s it.”
Freeman said the DOT might be likely to listen if citizens were allowed to speak to the group.
“I think it would serve our community better,” she said.
Trustee Kent Johnson said the school board had chances to speak with DOT officials.
“They had one of those meetings in (Waukesha) to get all parties involved,” he said. “I recall the grade school refused to fill out the form (the DOT requested) before the meeting. The questionnaire asked for positives and negatives for each plan.”
Freeman said the school board decided not to fill out the form for the DOT.
“Our thinking, of our board, was that we didn’t like any of those plans,” she said. “That was determined by the board.”
Rasmussen said he was disappointed with the school board’s reaction to the DOT.
“I came back from that, and I was disappointed,” he said. “If I behaved like that when I was in fourth grade, I would have been in the principal’s office ... (Walworth) won’t be the same if we pretend that we don’t have to do something (about traffic around the square).”
Rasmussen said he was surprised by how the school board’s attorney was advising them.
“You said nothing,” he said. “You had an attorney advising you, and you said nothing. It’s a U.S. highway. To sit here and pretend that they won’t just roll over us, the federal government and the state government, is more irresponsible (than accepting a DOT plan).”
Bypass still not an option
Tom Connelly, a business owner on the square in Walworth, asked the board if there was a way to delay the construction project.
“This plan only serves the DOT and what they want to do with truck traffic,” he said. “It doesn’t answer any other concerns other than free-flowing truck traffic through Walworth at the expense of property that generates tax to the village.”
Connelly also said the DOT’s plan for the highway disrupts the historic nature of the village and isolates some businesses.
“We’ve talked about a bypass for years and years,” he said. “A bypass wouldn’t stop downtown businesses because trucks don’t stop here anyway. If we can do some kind of maintenance project and then hold out for a bypass, that would be best.”
Rasmussen called waiting a “game of chicken.”
“If we say ‘don’t do anything now,’ will that game of chicken get us faster to where we’d like to be?” he asked.
Rasmussen said a recent study by the Wisconsin’s Taxpayers Alliance of state agency budgets shows the DOT has a “huge hole in its budget” and asking the DOT to set aside the Highway 14 project funds for a future project won’t work.
Connelly said he wants to keep the DOT plan part of the “public conversation” so the residents don’t forget about it.
After the meeting, Rasmussen said that the DOT would begin buying property in the village in 2014 and the next steps preparing for construction of the road would follow.
A representative from the DOT was not available for comment on land acquisition in the village.