If the Vienna Town Council follows the consensus of citizens who attended a public hearing last weekend, it will turn its back on more than $1.36 million in state and federal aid and dip into its own pocket to improve treelined Park Street.
Under an agreement between the council and the Virginia Highway Department, made about a decade ago, Vienna would be billed for only 15 percent of the total cost of $1.6 million for widening the street to 36 feet and constructing sidewalks, gutters and new drainage. If the town decides on anything less than the entire package, it will have to pay for all of the construction.
Still, more than 100 persons appeared at the three-hour hearing in the Community Center to protest the widening of the 18-foot street to a 36-foot, three-lane arterial, with accompanying loss or damage to more than 500 trees. Most members of the crowd live on or near park, which connects Cedar Lane and Vienna's main street, Maple Avenue.
Several citizens asked the council to spare the Park Street trees, some of which measure 40 inches in diameter. Other residents said they were appalled at the cost for the stretch, which is just over one mile long, and others feared that enlarging park would create another busy conduit such as nearby Cottage or Nutley streets. Parents voiced concern for children at Cunningham Park School, some of whom walk along the street with their backs to the traffic to reach the crossing guard.
Those who favored widening the road claimed the street is dangerously narrow. Town Manager Brackenridge Bentley said, however, that while the State Highway Department survey called Park "an extremely dangerous street," Vienna police records do not bear out the statement.
The controversial project began a decade ago when the Vienna Town Council decided that Park, one of the town's oldest streets, should be widened. Lacking the funds, the council went to the state for aid. At that time, according to current Councilman Ray Hicks, the state specified a 48-foot minimum width if it took over the project.
Later the council learned that if it used a combination of state and federal funds, it could reduced the width to a more acceptable 36 feet. After public hearings, the council voted 6 to 1 in favor of the project. The opposing vote was cast by Charles Robinson, now mayor of the town of approximately 18,000 residents.
Under that agreement, the town would pay 15 percent of the cost, and state and federal funds would pay 85 percent. The cost to the town would be about $240,000. Vienna would also pay about $100,000 for stone retaining walls for property that would be cut deeply in the widening process. Believing that this project would eventually get under way, the council allocated about $60,000 from a $1-million multipurpose bond issue passed in 1977.
According to Mayor Robinson, the council vote "was a reluctant decision," because council members knew that many residents, especially those along Park, did not want to lose the trees. The council felt, however, "that state aid was the only way to get it done," Robinson explained.
Still, residents continued to resist, under th informal leadership of Lowell G. Schweikart, who has lived at 710 Park since 1951. The widening project was never begun, due partly to what one council member called "politics" and another termed "persistent foot-dragging" brought on by citizen opposition. When the September Vienna Newsletter, an official town publication, announced that hearings would be held, Schweikart rallied his neighbors to attend the meeting.
The week before the meeting, Town Manager Bentley had 268 trees tagged with white ribbons to indicate that they would be eliminated under the 36-foot widening plan. Another 253 were tagged in yellow to show the ones that would probably suffer damage or die. Among them are dogwoods, hollies, gums, pines, maples and oaks.
Although Bentley had prepared four alternatives, each with several options, for consideration by the citizens and council, questions began almost as soon as the first slide appeared on the screen. Bentley, who has been town manager only since July, referred many of them to Hector Allen, superintendent of public works.
Bentley made clear that the town would receive financial assistance only if it accepted the 36-foot widening project, and none if it decided on a narrower width. It will also have to repay the cost of the Highway Department survey if it rejects state aid.
As the hearing wound down, it became apparent that the crowd was heavily against the state plan, but that an improved drainage system is needed even if the road isn't widened. Because the council expected financial aid for Park Street, it has allowed the roadway to fall into some disrepair, hoping the inadequate storm drains and potholes would be remedied by new construction. Only this summer did the town begin asphalt overlay, now almost completed.
The six-member council, plus the mayor, who has a vote, will make a decision at its Oct. 16 meeting.