New Sweden citizens speed-up slowdown

It has been months since New Sweden Avenue residents began petitioning the city to reduce the speed limit on their south-end road from 35 to 25 miles per hour.

They seemed to achieve a victory on Wednesday when the Bainbridge City Council hastily meshed together a resolution declaring the situation on the road an emergency, therefore subject to an immediate reduction in speed by council enactment.

However, the questionable legality, and the precedent the move sets, has worried some councillors

The resolution came after an abrasive schooling by New Sweden Avenue resident Sarah Blossom. During public comment, Blossom argued that Washington State law expressly calls for 25 mph speed limits on all city and town streets. The city has maintained that speed limits cannot be adjusted without conducting, and publishing the results, of a thorough traffic study.

Blossom fought against that assertion, expressing her opinion that New Sweden residents were not asking for a speed change, rather a conformity of speed limits to state law.

The problem, as with many Bainbridge roads, is that the city was handed a number of county-regulated streets when the island incorporated in 1990, said council member Chris Snow. Under state law, county roads can reach a maximum of 50 miles per hour.

“We inherited that road and many others with it’s speed limit in 1990. In those days it was probably a rural road with less traffic, but things change,” Snow said. “(New Sweden) is certainly not a road I would want to drive more than 25 mph on.”

City councilors capitulated to the arguments and lobbying of New Sweden residents and unanimously passed their resolution asking the city to reduce the speed limit.

Some councilors expressed concern that by declaring New Sweden an emergency, it would in essence open the door to other community members seeking to reduce the speed limits of a given street without a traffic study.

“One of the things the city administration is concerned about is that this will precipitate a rush of people who are going to come and petition for the same thing to happen,” Snow said. “There is a little problem about legal liability with the city associated with that. It’s important we make revisions within the law.”

Council member Hilary Franz was adamantly opposed to the precedent the council would be setting if the emergency provision for changing road speeds was extended to include a residential speed limit change request.

“Hilary said that there is a good case law which says that if a municipality passes an ordinance that is contradictory to state law, that action is null and void,” Snow said. “That would be a confusing thing for motorists.”

Franz did not return phone calls at the time of publication.

According to Public Works Director Randy Witt, a work order has been placed to change the signs on New Sweden, despite the legal questions it raises.

“There is a process to follow for changing speed limits and the council elected to take a different course,” Witt said. “From what I understand, it doesn’t follow process of law, so there is a risk.”

“Well we’ve got a couple questions to answer legally before we move forward,” said City Engineer Bob Earl, who acts as the city’s traffic engineer, “Of course we want to do what the community wants done, but we have to proceed cautiously because of liability issues.”

Earl said it might be wise for the city to engage in an island-wide traffic study, which he estimates would cost around $95,000.

A thorough study could help cover the city legally if it or the council decided to make more speed-limit changes.

While it is unknown when the speed-limit signage will be changed, New Sweden residents may only have to wait a few more weeks until the roads can be changed legally. The city is already conducting a traffic survey on New Sweden. The results of that study will be presented at the Dec. 1, Public Works Committee meeting; recommended speeds will be received by the council at its Dec. 10 meeting. Once the results and recommendations are published, council can legally change the speed limit.

New Sweden residents, who argue the nature of their narrow, hilly road demanded an immediate speed reduction, felt they had achieved a victory on Wednesday despite the council’s actions being questioned.

“I was disheartened by how long it took but I am glad we saw them take some action last night,” said Deb Russell, a lifelong resident of New Sweden and a mother of three. “It’s a dangerous road and we’re definitely going to keep on the city and make sure this happens as soon as possible.”

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