Stormwater plan would transform downtown area along Main Street

WESTERLY — A conceptual stormwater master plan for the downtown area along Main Street is under development.

When implemented, the plan is expected to transform the area from one dominated by asphalt into one with trees and plantings that reduce flooding, improve the water quality of the Pawcatuck River, provide pollinator and bird habitat, improve air quality, and add beauty and pedestrian ease to the economic center of the town.

Gina Fuller, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and a resident of the town, and Rene Stoops, the district’s municipal liaison, discussed the project with the Town Council during its meeting on Monday. The conservation district and the town are partners in the project.

The Westerly Land Trust’s community garden on Main Street serves as an example, Fuller said, of ways to add green to a street packed with large parking lots barren of trees, grass and flowers. Town officials have long discussed ways to improve the aesthetics of Main Street and have been working with the state Department of Environmental Management to improve the quality of stormwater that flows off of the street and into the river.

The project also “fulfills several of your Comprehensive Plan action items and it is also something that many of your downtown businesses, including the Westerly Land Trust and the Economic Development Commission, have been striving toward,” Fuller said.

The project is also intended to improve resiliency to protect the Main Street corridor from sea level rise and increased storm surge while improving public access to the river. The street’s tendency to flood should also be mitigated, Fuller said.

Westerly Resilient Riverfront Renewal, the recently bequeathed name of the project, will also help develop a sense of place for the Main Street area, Fuller said.

Engineering and landscape architecture firm Fuss and O’Neil was hired to assist with development of the plan that is expected to integrate a variety of green infrastructure features along the streets and on both town and private properties. Property owners along the street have been cooperative and enthused and will have final authority on potential changes to their property, Fuller said.

“We’re excited by the cooperation we’ve had from the various property owners,” Fuller said.

An earlier phase of the project enabled conceptual stormwater design training through a grant by the Southern New England Program. Building on that, Fuller said, the district and town have pulled together planning and implementation funding from the state Department of Transportation, the town, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program.

The project is also expected to help the state DOT reach a goal of reducing the volume of roadway storm drain output to the river. The decrease is set out as a goal under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The decree is related to allegations by the EPA that DOT failed to comply with conditions of a permit for stormwater discharge from small municipal storm sewer systems related to impaired waters, illicit discharge detection and elimination; street sweeping pollution prevention; and catch basin and other drainage system component inspection and maintenance. The Pawcatuck River is considered impaired due to elevated bacteria levels.

Stoops said the district has received feedback from residents of the area who said they do not feel safe walking along Main Street. The project, by making it easier to walk the area, will change that and provide an economic boost, she said.

“People will want to hang out downtown more and visit more of the businesses,” Stoops said.

Councilor Christopher Duhamel noted that the town, like the state, is under pressure to improve how stormwater, which carries pollutants, is treated before it gets into the river.

“I’m thankful for the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and Gina Fuller who runs it. She is one of the preeminent people in town,” Duhamel said. “This is a requirement; DOT and EPA and the town are required to make these improvements. For her to come and get people to work together and find funding for it is really helpful for the people of Westerly.”

Fuller said the project will serve as a model for work that can occur in other parts of the town and other municipalities in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

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