Keene eminent-domain win cites benefits of planned Winchester St. roundabout

City hails ‘very good news’ for long-planned project
Winchester St Keene

The intersection of Winchester Street and Key Road in Keene, as seen in November 2020. (Mia Summerson-The Keene Sentinel)

A judge has ruled in favor of the city of Keene in an eminent-domain case that could pave the way for a roundabout at Winchester Street and Key Road.

In a decision filed in Cheshire County Superior Court last week, Judge Elizabeth Leonard determined the harm the public-taking could cause Sandri Companies, which owns the Sunoco gas station at that intersection, is outweighed by the benefits of the proposed roundabout.

“On balance, the pendulum swings in the City’s favor. It has presented substantial evidence displaying the pressing need for the Roundabout and its significant benefits,” Leonard wrote in the decision. “Sandri, on the other hand, has shown only speculative harm.”

The state and city government have long planned improvements to the Winchester Street corridor, including a roundabout at the intersection with Key Road and another farther north at its intersection with Island and Pearl streets.

Keene officials sought to negotiate the purchase of about 1,000 square feet of Sandri’s property to accommodate building a roundabout to replace the signalized intersection there. But when it became clear the company wouldn’t sell the parcels, the City Council initiated eminent-domain proceedings in January of last year.

Through eminent domain, a government can take private property by force if it will be put to public use and as long as the landowner receives just compensation.

At a City Council meeting last Thursday, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon described the court win as “very good news.” She said the city had been waiting for a resolution to the case so it can move forward with the project.

Sandri Cos. did not return phone requests for comment on Tuesday and Wednesday about whether it will appeal the case to the NH Supreme Court.

‘Lethal blow’

Leonard wrote in her decision that she heard testimony from experts representing Sandri and those representing the city during a seven-day trial held this past December and January.

Sandri’s primary concern with the roundabout is the potential for serious congestion at the gas station, since one of the two entrances to the business off Winchester Street would have to be removed to accommodate the project, Leonard said.

According to the court decision, Michael Behn, Sandri’s chief operating officer, said during the trial that the roundabout would present a “lethal blow” to the gas station there and he would sell the site if the court granted the public-taking.

During the trial, Sandri presented an analysis by IMST Corp., a market research firm headquartered in Houston, that indicated fuel sales would decrease 33.2 percent and store sales would decrease by 28.4 percent. But Leonard said the analysis did not include information about how the firm came to those numbers and officials with Sandri were also unable to provide an explanation.

The city was represented by Eugene McCarthy, a senior project engineer at McFarland Johnson, the engineering firm based in Binghamton, N.Y., that has designed plans for the Winchester Street project, and Donald Lussier, Keene’s city engineer.

Compared to the existing traffic light, the roundabout would decrease traffic delays at the intersection from an average of about 54.8 seconds on weekday evenings and 81 seconds on Saturdays at midday to about 16.7 seconds and 23.8 seconds, respectively, according to evidence presented by the city.

“That is a remarkable reduction,” Leonard wrote in her decision.

Moreover, the roundabout would improve the safety of the intersection, according to evidence the city presented that Leonard said she found convincing.

The existing intersection experiences an average of 16 crashes per year, 2½ of which involve injuries, data presented by the city during the trial indicated, and a roundabout, which would slow approaching traffic, could reduce fatal injuries by 70 percent or more.

“Considering there were only 32 crashes over a two-year period, that reduction is remarkable,” Leonard said. “The public has a significant interest in reducing property damage and, more importantly, injuries and fatalities.”

The proposed roundabout would also improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety and accessibility in the area, the judge wrote. A multi-use path compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act is planned as part of the project and would include a crosswalk with flashing lights across Winchester Street.

Leonard also noted environmental benefits associated with roundabouts, which keep traffic moving and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions released by idling engines, and the planned aesthetic improvements.

“The corridor will go from a highway environment to a more residential, park-like vibe,” she said.

She further wrote that she was convinced by the city’s arguments that the roundabout could actually improve access to Sandri’s property.

At present, customers driving north on Winchester Street must turn onto Key Road and do a U-turn in a private parking lot to avoid a median in the road to access the gas station, Leonard noted. But with the roundabout, those customers could simply do a full circle and enter off of the southbound stretch of Winchester Street, she said.

“In the end, while Sandri will lose what it believes is the most convenient access, the Court finds access will still be convenient under the circumstances,” the judge wrote.

Ryan Spencer can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1412, or Follow him on Twitter @rspencerKS

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