Holmes Creek Covered Bridge renovation raises questions

The town of Charlotte is facing some big decisions about renovating the Holmes Creek Covered Bridge.

At the selectboard’s May 6 meeting, it heard a group of residents concerned about the historic structure and from representatives of Hoyle Tanner, an engineering firm consulting on the bridge who presented several options for rehabilitating it.

Todd Sumner, Hoyle Tanner’s project manager for this work, said the bridge was built in 1870 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Although the most recent rehabilitation of the bridge was in 1993, he said they were sure there was other work done on the bridge over the years for which records haven’t been found.

The bridge is 41 feet long and has a horizontal clearance of 12 feet. The vertical clearance is 8 feet 10 inches, even though a sign is there that says the vertical clearance is 8 feet 3 inches. The smaller size claimed by that sign gives the bridge a 7-inch buffer, Sumner said.

Holmes Creek Covered Bridge

The Holmes Creek Bridge has a 3-ton weight limit.

In November, Hoyle Tanner gathered information for its proposals for the bridge and at the time recommended that the town take care of some critical intermediate repairs. Those repairs were time critical and were taken care of quickly.

Josif Bicja, technical lead for the project, went over photos of different parts of the bridge. While much of the bridge is in satisfactory condition, or rated 5 on a 9-point scale, there are a number of support beams that are below satisfactory and rated in fair condition.

A good bit of damage has been caused by vehicles, most likely box trucks, constantly hitting those members of the bridge structure over the years.

Although the engineering consultant presented a number of options for the bridge renovation, Bicja said, “the number one goal of the project is to preserve the historic fabric as much as we can.”

Kelly LaVigne, a bridge engineer for Hoyle Tanner, said they had looked at rehabilitating the bridge to a 5-ton, 12-ton or 20-ton capacity. The higher the capacity of the rehabilitated bridge, the less of the historical structure can be preserved.

There are a number of things and costs for the town to consider in its decision about how it wants to rehabilitate the bridge besides initial construction costs, including fire protection; the traffic, public safety, environmental and property impacts on the surrounding area; extending the service life of the bridge; and getting public input, LaVigne said.

Constructing a one-lane temporary bridge for traffic while the historic bridge renovation takes place is not very feasible and expensive, she said.

The detour during construction would be relatively convenient and short, LaVigne said. “That’s our recommendation, but I believe ultimately, it’s up to the town.”

The firm will have to coordinate its work with the National Historic Preservation Act, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Committee. The work will need to minimize the impact on natural resources like the flora and fauna in the area. While the work is not anticipated to require any permanent property easements there is a likelihood that it will require some temporary easement for construction access.

The consultants couldn’t give a firm commitment to how long the bridge will need to be closed because that depends on factors like how large a weight limit the town decides it wants for the renovated bridge, but LaVigne said the bridge would probably be closed four-six months.

Although some work on repairing and replacing wooden members can be done during the cold, a good bit of the construction will have to be done during the warmer months. It’s likely the bridge could be closed for a large part of an April-November timeframe.

Mike Russell, who lives nearby on Lake Road, said, although he loves driving through the bridge, he would willingly give that up to preserve the historic bridge.

“I’ve thought for years that the right answer for this bridge is to restrict it to pedestrian and bicycle use only,” Russell said.

Because preserving the historic structure is a primary objective of the project and the bridge was built before modern vehicles, he supports prohibiting vehicles.

Greg Smith suggested adding a wooden bridge for pedestrians and cyclists to the covered bridge.

Judith Ehrlich, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) historic preservation officer, said they try to limit big changes to historic structures like a walkway attached to the covered bridge. She said she would probably recommend a separate bridge, but that would require such things as separate footings and abutments that would increase the price.

“When we’re rehabilitating something historic, the goal is to try to retain as much original material as possible,” said Ehrlich. “When we need to make a change, we try to keep it subtle.”

One of the consultants said the bridge renovation will be almost completely federally funded. The town will owe between 2.5 and 10 percent for design and “right-of-way” costs, but they did not know if the funding was contingent upon the bridge remaining open to vehicles. They will have to check on that.

Currently, Charlotte Fire and Rescue doesn’t drive its ambulance through the bridge. Russell said it’s not much difference in distance if responding to an incident from the fire house.

However, Patrice Machavern pointed out it does make a difference in some situations, for example when a rescue team from Shelburne has responded to a call on the north side of the bridge, and as it finishes up, gets a call to render mutual aid to Charlotte for a call that is on the southern side of the bridge.

Machavern also said that if the bridge was limited to pedestrians and cyclists, it might lead to people parking on the south side of the bridge and walking across to get to the town beach. She said people who live on that side would not be happy with a big increase in parking in their neighborhood.

Eventually, the discussion wound down with the board deciding to see if there was interest among residents in having another meeting to have the opportunity for opinions or questions about the bridge rehabilitation.

Rec director resigns
After an executive session toward the end of the meeting, the board reconvened in open meeting and reluctantly accepted the resignation of recreation director Nicole Conley at the end of May. And then began a discussion about how they would go about finding someone to take over that position.