Jajuga changes stance on Methuen Wheeler Street truck ban [The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.]

May 09–METHUEN — A group of residents are again pushing to ban heavy trucks from Wheeler Street in the city’s west end. This time, however, they’re doing so without the support of Mayor James Jajuga.

For more than two years now, residents of the Regency at Methuen active older living community have been attempting to restrict heavy truck traffic on the street that runs by their development, citing safety concerns mainly from trucks using the road as an access point to and from a Brox Industries Inc. quarry just over the border in Dracut.

Jajuga was initially supportive of the residents’ efforts; he was one of the three city councilors who brought forward an ordinance to restrict heavy trucking on that street two years ago.

But Jajuga, now in his first term as mayor, has amended his stance on the matter, telling a group of about two dozen residents gathered at the City Council meeting Monday night that he no longer agreed with their assessment of the situation.

“Quite frankly, the development, the Regency (residents), are suggesting that the little strip where they see trucks, that’s a public safety hazard,” Jajuga said in a follow-up conversation with The Eagle-Tribune on Tuesday. “In my eyes, it’s not.”

Regency resident Evelyn Tobin was disappointed in the mayor’s change of heart. Along with originally sponsoring the legislation, Tobin said Jajuga met with Regency residents while campaigning for mayor last year and again expressed support for the ban.

“We were very confident when the new mayor came in he would support us because he told us he would support us, and we’re very disappointed that hasn’t happened,” Tobin said Monday night.

Access to Brox

Trucks going from Brox currently use a route that takes them from the quarry left down Lowell Street, and then right down a short section of Wheeler Street to access Route 110. A left from Lowell Street onto Wheeler Street connects to Route 113 to the north.

In 2016, then-Mayor Stephen Zanni vetoed the ban on heavy trucking and attempted to work out a compromise with Brox, in which trucks would be prevented from turning left to go north on Wheeler Street, but would still be able to turn right and traverse the short stretch of road to access Route 110.

Councilors at the time overrode Zanni’s veto — despite threats of legal action from Brox — and had the ordinance sent to the state for review, only for it to be shot down by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in early 2017.

Regency resident Stuart Malis said his group appealed the decision in May, but that a decision was still pending because MassDOT was waiting “to hear from the new mayor to make sure the city still supports the resolution.”

Jajuga’s support wavers

The current City Council unanimously approved a first read of an ordinance reaffirming their support for the heavy trucking ban at Monday night’s meeting.

Jajuga disagreed. He offered a different perspective on the issue from the one he expressed two years ago at a council meeting, when he described Wheeler Street as a “narrow” and “dangerous street” and called the truck traffic “a public safety issue.”

The mayor said this week he still supports a partial ban on Wheeler Street along the lines of the one Zanni proposed, which would still allow trucks access to Route 110 but would prevent them from traveling past the Regency development.

“I’m suggesting we should keep those trucks away from that development,” Jajuga said. “What I’m not suggesting is we keep them from slowly leaving the facility and stopping at the stop sign, and taking a right and going that short distance (onto Wheeler Street) … I think that’s not a dangerous situation at all.”

Regency residents were outwardly disappointed by Jajuga’s comments during Monday’s council meeting, some visibly shaking their heads in disagreement with the mayor.

“If his rationale is he’s trying to protect the city from the lawsuit, then he might as well make an announcement that any company or individual who wants to get their way with the city of Methuen can threaten to file a lawsuit,” Tobin said. “That’s no way to run a city.”

Jajuga said he was unwilling to let Brox drain the city’s coffers with a drawn-out legal battle.

“I’m trying to put the budget together and my job is to not expend money if I think it’s unnecessary and inappropriate, and I’m trying to reduce the number of lawsuits that the city is facing when I can,” Jajuga said. “This is one case where I can.”

Jajuga said he would look at potentially bringing back the idea of a deceleration lane from Route 110 turning right onto Wheeler Street that would allow trucks to better negotiate the curve. He declined, however, to give residents any timetable on when that might come to fruition.

He also said he had not met with Brox, and feared the company would “rebuff” any attempts to meet with them over changing their access route to the quarry, like residents have suggested.

Tobin and other Regency residents said they intend to proceed with their appeal with or without Jajuga’s support.

“The new mayor, it turns out he doesn’t support it. The council certainly does, so what we’re going to do is try to take the resolution … on to the state and say here is our evidence, if you will, that the city still supports this initiative,” Tobin said.

Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky.

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