Wall divides town, couple

MERRIMACK – The Board of Selectmen on Thursday denied a couple’s request to build a retaining wall at the front of their property, where summer roadwork to straighten a dangerous curve cut away roughly 6 feet of their lawn.

Whether the town had the legal right to cut into the property owners’ hill was never an issue at the meeting. All the work occurred within the road right of way, where the town has the right to widen travel lanes, build sidewalks or add drainage culverts, town officials said.

Rather, the question arose whether, morally, the town should build the wall, because the homeowners, Rick and Shannon Barnes of 55 Lawrence Road, say they had been promised by the former town manager that none of the work to straighten the so-called Farmhouse Curve would occur on the side of the road where their 231-year-old farmhouse sits, now about 12 feet from the roadway.

In late July, subcontractors hired by the town first cut into the hillside near the Barneses’ 1763 house, which the young couple bought three years ago. Since then, the Barneses have met with town staff members several times without the problem being resolved, they said.

When construction equipment began digging there again on Sept. 30, the couple took the unusual step of asking to be put on the selectmen’s agenda.

The couple said the work not only hurt their property values, but also endangered their two young children. Lawrence Road is heavily traveled by large trucks because it leads to the town’s transfer station, which opened last January.

The former town landfill is also located on the road.

By a 3-2 vote, selectmen decided to follow the plans for the project, which would remove some of the 2-foot road shoulder and ease the slope to the Barneses’ property. Loam would be added and grass planted under the plan.

There would be no cost to taxpayers with the action the board took. However, if the town had built the fieldstone-facade retaining wall the couple had wanted, the cost would have been at least $28,000, and possibly as much as $40,000 if ledge had to be blasted away.

The Public Works Department had presented selectmen six options of various costs, including the option the town chose and the fieldstone wall the Barneses had sought.

Rather than building a more expensive fieldstone-facade wall, which would have aesthetically suited the couple’s historic home, Public Works Director Ed Chase in August suggested a less expensive concrete block wall, Shannon Barnes said.

But she rejected the suggestion, telling Chase, “It would look industrial against our antique home,” she said.

Selectman Carolyn Whitlock moved to follow the original plans for the road.

Her motion was supported by Selectman Dick Hinch, the board chairman, and Chuck Mower.

Selectmen Tom Koenig and Dave McCray opposed Whitlock’s motion. Koenig had unsuccessfully moved to table the motion for a week.

He volunteered to serve on a subcommittee that would work with the Barneses to find a middle-ground solution to the situation.

“I do believe the town has a moral obligation to try to solve this issue,” Koenig said.

“This is a difficult and sensitive issue for all of us,” Whitlock said.

She and other board members said they understood the Barneses’ concerns, and their impassioned plea for the town to build the wall.

But road work throughout town impacts local properties, and Whitlock said she was worried about setting a precedent if the town spent $40,000 for a retaining wall to benefit one family.

“I’m having a little bit of difficulty understanding why this is not viewed as an improvement to the situation on Lawrence Road,” Mower said of the roadwork, which improved sight lines along the curve.

McCray was the only selectman to argue that the fieldstone retaining wall should be built. He also was the only one to apologize to the Barneses for what had happened.

“I feel a cold atmosphere,” McCray said. “Merrimack has gotten a little bit chillier tonight.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Shannon Barnes read a statement to the board.

“Tonight, I come to you asking you to do the right thing,” she said.

She described how she and her husband had been told by former Town Manager Dean Shankle that all the roadwork would occur on the opposite side of the road on a piece of land the town had acquired for the project. She also detailed conversations she had with Chase and acting Town Manager Bill Mulligan.

Partway through her presentation, Shannon Barnes broke down in tears, and her husband had to finish.

“Tonight, I feel like my family and I have been spit on by this town,” Rick Barnes said at the end of the meeting.

“The decision was a very, very difficult decision, probably one of the toughest we’ve wrestled with,” Hinch said after the meeting.

On the one hand, the board had to weigh the Barneses’ concerns, he said. On the other hand, the board had to consider what was the best course for the town, Hinch said.

Blasting ledge for the retaining wall could have damaged the couple’s home, putting the town at a liability risk, he said.

“That’s not a risk the town should take,” Hinch said.