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Judge greenlights Champlain Parkway construction as underlying battle continues

Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 5:31 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 17, 2022 at 5:42 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Score one for the Champlain Parkway project-- a federal judge ruled Friday that construction of the Burlington roadway can begin while an underlying legal battle continues.

“We do not look at safety and environmental justice and climate change now the way we did in 2006,” said Cindy Hill, the lawyer representing the Pine Street Coalition in federal court.

The Coalition’s lawsuit argues that the city’s plan for the Champlain Parkway, once known as the Southern Connector, is based on an outdated environmental impact study. They want a judge to order a new study that they believe will prove the parkway should not be built as planned.

“With this much time having passed, that 2006 document is no longer a hard look. We’re saying you need to look at it again today, with today’s wisdom about environmental impacts, and today’s impacts about environmental justice, and climate change, and safety on roads,” Hill said.

This legal fight gained urgency this week when the city announced it was about to begin construction through the South End neighborhood.

Hill and her legal team filed a motion for a restraining order against the city to halt the planned clearing of trees between Home and Lakeside avenues.

That motion was initially granted but after a hearing Friday morning, Judge Geoffrey Crawford reversed the order, clearing the way for construction to begin.

“The plaintiffs face a very high burden to demonstrate irreparable harm and it’s balanced by the harm that the public would face if the project doesn’t get to go forward,” said Brian Dunkiel, outside counsel for the city of Burlington.

The city argued the harm in delaying the project includes needed stormwater improvements around a brook that runs into Lake Champlain and construction penalties incurred by taxpayers.

“We’re in a situation right now where every day that we’re not allowed to move forward on construction is costing the project liquidated damages of up to $15,000 per day,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington.

The city believes the completed parkway linking Interstate 189 to Battery Street will improve overall traffic flow in the city.

Opponents say the project does not match current transportation needs and will harm residents in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

That underlying legal fight is still to play out in federal court.

“What the judge signaled is that he’d like to move swiftly to a final hearing on the merits before the end of the year. So that rather than having to come back repeatedly when the phases of construction are planned, that we get an ultimate decision,” Hill said.

According to the city, now that the temporary restraining order has been lifted, they plan to start the first phase of the project early next week.

In a release late Friday afternoon, the Pine Street Coalition said they plan to host a protest Saturday at noon in the King and Maple neighborhood where they plan to discuss the judge’s decision.

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