The closure of a section of Hampton’s famed Ocean Boulevard to create more space for social distancing this summer is making waves with some beach residents who are frustrated with the new traffic pattern.
Bradford Avenue resident Donna Northam told selectmen Monday night that the closure has been an “epic fail” and a “complete disaster.”
“This plan’s been shoved down the throats of the residents of Hampton Beach and North Beach. It has created consequences of horrific traffic and personal safety and the fact is this plan benefits about six businesses and families at the expense of the residents,” she said.
Northam, who accused officials of ignoring the voices of local residents when the plan was drawn up, proposed reopening the right lane of Ocean Boulevard to allow vehicles to continue northbound to ease traffic congestion.
While they acknowledged that the closure of Ocean Boulevard from O Street to Nudd Avenue in the area of Mrs. Mitchell’s Gifts hasn’t been perfect, Police Chief Richard Sawyer and some selectmen were still supportive of the change through Labor Day.
The closure created a so-called “walking mall” on Ocean Boulevard to give visitors more room for social distancing and allowed some businesses to expand their outdoor dining options, but it has forced vehicles traveling north to detour onto Ashworth Avenue, which was turned into a two-way street.
Northam argued that a combination of the traffic being rerouted down O Street to Ashworth Avenue, the orange barricades that were installed, and an inadequate number of signs addressing the changes have created a dangerous situation.
Selectman Regina Barnes echoed Northam’s concerns, which have been expressed by residents living on other side streets impacted by the traffic change as well, including Atlantic, Boston, Dover, Haverhill avenues and those on O, P and N streets.
Barnes, who has lived in town since the 1970s, said she watched the traffic from a resident’s porch on the corner of O street last Friday night and reported drivers “bombing through the roadblocks or bombing down O Street.”
She said Northam “is not exaggerating anything.”
Barnes said she also saw young people setting off fireworks in the middle of Ocean Boulevard at the end of Atlantic Avenue.
“Those residents are just sitting out on their porch enjoying their summer homes and they’re scared,” she said.
Sawyer agreed that more signs are needed, including for resident-only street parking, and said fireworks have been more of a problem this year, most likely because people have cabin fever from being isolated for the past several weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sawyer said additional part-time officers will be available beginning Friday to help with traffic control.
“I hear the concerns being expressed by the folks on the south end of the beach and I do appreciate their perception of issues, but I have to go with factual data on safety issues,” said Sawyer, who worked on the plan designed by engineers from the state Department of Transportation.
Since the closure went into effect on May 28, Sawyer said police have documented three accidents. He said there were two accidents over the same period last year.
“We’re not experiencing a dramatic increase in accidents, which is a good thing to hear,” he said.
After hearing the concerns, selectmen voted to direct the police department to install a speed bump to slow traffic on O Street.
Selectman Rusty Bridle called the closure changes a work in progress.
“For the people that live down there on O Street, I feel their pain, but I also see the need,” he said, adding that the plan allows for the social distancing that was needed in order for the beach to be able to open for the summer.
Selectman Chuck Rage, who is also head of the Hampton Beach Village District and a beach business owner, said he understands the difficulties facing residents and businesses this summer.
He said traffic is always bad for about 10 days each year.
“There (are) going to be difficult days. It is difficult for different businesses. It is difficult for different residents,” he said.
Overall, he said he felt the changes were working out well and that on average one out of every 25 comments he receives is negative.
“This whole year is a tough year and we need everybody to have a good summer, get through the summer, and next year we’ll have different plans,” he said.