The La Plata Streetscape Task Force will meet this week to finalize a concept plan of street improvements, sidewalks and landscaping designed to revitalize a town that needed a boost even before an F4 tornado ravaged it eight months ago.
But when leaders of a historic church and several business owners describe the ideas revealed so far, their words sound more like a reaction to the tornado wreckage than to a plan for a friendlier, more livable La Plata.
"It's a mess," said the Rev. Joseph W. Trigg, rector of Christ Church on Charles Street.
Said another woman, "They're more worried about planting trees than solving the problems."
The "problems" in La Plata, according to critics, include outdated infrastructure and poor traffic flow on Charles Street. The streetscape plan, however, is geared toward beautifying the town and restoring some of the vegetation lost in the storm, according to state and town officials.
Task force participants said some people misunderstand the purpose of the group. Although they acknowledge that many property owners have raised valid concerns with the project, they said there is plenty of time for more tinkering.
"We're not going to do things that people aren't comfortable with," Assistant Town Manager Patricia L. Bembe said.
The $15 million, state-funded project has been expedited as a result of the April 28 twister that devasted much of the town's business district. The concept development phase for neighborhood conservation projects typically takes 12 to 18 months, said Martin Cohn, the State Highway Administration engineer guiding the streetscape project; the La Plata task force has completed it in less than six months.
The task force wanted to have the project concept outlined by the start of the General Assembly session, which opens this week, to be in good standing for the state's limited funds this year, said member Lisa Bales, co-owner of Casey Jones Restaurant.
In the meantime, the plan's critics wonder about the common sense of the streetscape concept. For instance, the plan proposes a traffic island for Charles Street that would prevent cars traveling east from turning left into Christ Church's parking lot and likewise would block cars from turning left into the street when leaving the lot.
Trigg said that design will inconvenience parishioners, as well as parents of the church's day school students who approach the building from the west, north or south. It would also complicate funeral processions to Mount Rest Cemetery and make it impossible to provide clear directions to the church for concerts, weddings and prospective members.
If people can't easily get to the church, it could cripple the local landmark's viability, Trigg contends.
"We've got to be easy to get to," he said. "I could not possibly tell anyone in less than a paragraph how to get here unless they were coming from the east. That's the biggest problem."
Other aspects of the streetscape plan include adding more sidewalks and new on-street parking, plus planting trees down the length of Charles Street. Trigg said the large trees eventually would buckle the sidewalks and block the view of the church.
Christ Church leaders attended the two public forums held last fall to air their objections but felt they had gone unheeded by the task force, Trigg said.
Not so, Cohn said. Task force members put off a final meeting with the La Plata Town Council in December because of concerns about a lack of consensus on the plan. Instead, they scheduled a private meeting this Thursday, when members will discuss more thoroughly the continuing worries of property owners.
Cohn said a traffic consultant is examining alternatives to the proposed traffic island in front of the church.
"One of the things that we try to do as part of a streetscape is, if possible, consolidate or try to modify entrances to clean things up a bit or improve safety," he said. "Why encourage people to make left turns in a spot where it's not really easy to do?"
The details for proposals on Charles Street will emerge in the second of five phases of the streetscape plan. The task force plans to meet with each property owner affected by the project, but members are still working their way through those touched by the plan's first phase, Cohn said.
Initial construction for the project could begin as early as this summer and entails extending Centennial Street one block between La Grange Street and Maple Avenue. Angled parking spaces will be added to La Grange Street, and parallel parking will be included on Maple Avenue and Centennial Street.
One business owner, who did not want to be named, said this extension would create more traffic problems. But Bales said it would alleviate congestion by giving people another way out of La Plata to Route 301.
"Centennial will now be a secondary gateway into our community that doesn't exist today," she said.
Some property owners have signaled to the task force that they want nothing to do with the sidewalks, street lighting or entrance consolidation involved in the streetscape plan.
Their land won't be included in the State Highway Administration's plans, and they won't face the possible maintenance costs for landscaping, Cohn said.
Bales said the members of the task force understand the skepticism of longtime residents who have heard heady promises for town improvements that never happened. But this time, she said, La Plata has the state's ear and its commitment.
"There is more energy behind this process than there ever has been before," she said. "It's going to be able to prepare our small town to move very graciously into the 21st century. [The plan] will keep it from being written off the map."