What’s next for controversial Northampton roundabout?
MassDOT terminated construction contract over archeological concerns
THE MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT of Transportation has terminated a construction contract for a controversial roundabout in Northampton, after neighbors and some Native American tribal representatives raised concerns that the project would disturb an ancient archeological site. But the project’s opponents are not yet declaring victory, saying they do not know how and if state officials will revive the plans.
“I’m not overly enthused or overly disappointed,” said Mark Andrews, senior tribal cultural resource monitor with the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah. “To me it’s just another step in the process.”
As CommonWealth previously reported, a seemingly routine project by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to add a roundabout and sidewalks at a dangerous intersection near a Northampton grocery store resulted in a public fight after initial excavations turned up rare archeological artifacts from a 10,000-year-old site.
State officials used eminent domain to take part of landowner John Skibiski’s property, and Skibiski had opposed the project from the start. Once the artifacts were found, Skibiski sued the state and sought to delay the project, claiming the state did not offer him fair value for his property. An archeologist hired by Skibiski said the site had archeological value and should not be destroyed. Some Native American tribal representatives voiced their own concerns about making sure any artifacts were properly preserved.
The agency cited the volume of comments it received at a public hearing, the overwhelming majority of which were opposed to the project due to its impacts on an archaeological site. “The re-evaluation option is responsive to the nature of the public comments received, which asked MassDOT to consider alternatives that avoided the location of the archaeological site,” MassDOT said. “This re-evaluation will take public opposition into account as a key evaluation criterion for all design alternatives considered.”
Skibiski said in an interview that he is happy MassDOT is reconsidering the project. But, he cautioned, “This is not a dead issue. This only means they’re revising their thoughts on the intersection.”
Skibiski’s attorney, John Connor, said the lawsuit over the land’s valuation and ownership of any artifacts that were found there is still pending. “Those issues are not resolved by DOT’s decision in this case,” Connor said.Andrews, of the Wampanoag Tribe, said he hopes to continue working with the state to develop alternative plans that have less of an impact on the archeological site. For example, there might be ways to adjust the shape of the intersection to make it safer, without digging beyond the area that has already been disturbed. “If they just give up on the roundabout plan in general, that’s their option,” Andrews said. He said if MassDOT decides to move forward, “we’ve got to sharpen our pencils” and figure out how to save the artifacts.
John Brown, the Narragansett Indian tribal historic preservation officer, had raised concerns about the removal of artifacts with the Federal Highway Administration, which was involved in project funding. He said he has gotten no information from MassDOT about what comes next. “We’re glad they did the responsible thing in the face of the questions that were looming out there, the legal questions and concerns for preservation of historic artifacts,” Brown said. “But the real meat and where the rubber meets the road is what are they planning to do next. That was not quite expressed.”