An argument blisters amid the weathered storefronts of old Placerville. It boils down to this: When is a traffic circle just a circle? And when is it a conspiracy?
Voters in the town of 10,500 residents are going to the polls in November to decide on a local initiative that would ban the city from constructing anything resembling a “roundabout” or “traffic circle” or “other similar traffic features.”
Measure K would also require a public vote on any project – such as a subdivision or commercial development – if it contains a road with such potentially offensive curvature.
The local initiative has become a curious metaphor for the growth and development battles consuming El Dorado County. Ever since the city announced plans two years ago to build a downtown traffic circle that was to wrap around a 1926 monument erected by the Druids of California, many people suspected ulterior motives.
Federal studies say a traffic roundabout – a circular intersection around a center island – can increase road capacity by 30 percent to 50 percent compared with traditional intersections. They are seen as reducing pollution because vehicles can merge into traffic in the circles and exit on desired streets without idling and spewing exhaust at stop signs or lights.
Some Placerville merchants perceived the city as jumping at the chance to spend some $1 million in federal funds on a project they complained would snarl the downtown with months of unwanted construction while changing its historic character.
Left-leaning residents suspected a motive to exploit traffic improvements to urbanize a small town and promote other construction threatening the rural environment of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Right-leaning residents saw a plot of centralized planning being handed down by the United Nations.
City officials said they were hoping to use federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program funds to improve local traffic flow. The federal funds were to be used for the downtown roundabout at Main Street and Cedar Ravine Road. The funds were also were to help pay for widening the Clay Street bridge near Highway 50 for cars, bicycles and pedestrians.
City Manager Cleve Morris said the projects were part of a “design feature” for a “downtown streetscape plan to improve traffic and walkability.” He said the city still hopes to improve the Clay Street bridge but is now walking away from the roundtable after an opponents’ lawsuit resulted in a judge ruling the project lacked sufficient environmental review.
But Placerville hasn’t given up on traffic circles. The city is studying a road improvement plan that recommends two more roundabouts to improve traffic flow at Forni Road and Lo Hi Way, south of Highway 50, and at the intersection of Forni Road, Placerville Drive and Fair Lane Road north of the freeway. Hence the battle continues, with citizens going to the ballot to fight the circles they dread.
Supporters of Measure K include Stephanie Sorensen. She is co-founder of a downtown store, The Good Earth Movement, that sells herbal products and “fair trade” goods. She describes herself as “in the movement to save the planet” – and suspects the local traffic circles are part of a road improvement plan to justify new subdivisions or big-box stores.
“Is this a policy issue, a traffic issue or is there going to be more development?” Sorensen asked. She signed the ballot argument for Measure K, she said, because, “for me, it’s about looking after the village.”
Sue Taylor, a Camino resident and part of a loose-knit, slow-growth group called Save Our County, believes such traffic features are the result of political “cronyism” that isn’t “transparent about the end game: Somebody is going to benefit with development.”
Taylor, a building designer, is refurbishing a downtown structure housing Placerville’s historic Hangman’s Tree bar. She sees the city’s effort to fund a nearby roundabout with “money from the federal government looking for a place to go” as part of an international planning scheme.
She blasts the effort as misguided “smart-growth stuff” handed down by the United Nations under a 1992 framework known as Agenda 21. It recommends that nations develop sustainably, with urbanized living and minimal environmental footprint.
Placerville architect Charlie Downs signed a ballot argument against Measure K. His firm, Architectural Nexus, seismically retrofitted and reconstructed the oldest house in Placerville, the 1864 Fausel Historic House, and built a contemporary office complex around it with traditional elements including cement plaster, heavy timber and corrugated metal.
He sees the roundabout idea – for downtown or elsewhere – as merely a “tool in the shed to mitigate traffic.” He said the idea of Measure K “is like passing a measure so that a car mechanic can’t use a screwdriver.” He doesn’t understand the local backlash against the mere idea of a traffic circle.
“Since the 1970s, we’ve been talking about these new concepts and a whole language has developed – smart growth, walkable communities, community identity,” Downs said. “All these are tenets for good planning. And yet what has happened in El Dorado County is that these phrases have become bad words. There are elements in our community who view it as a conspiracy. And it’s just bizarre to me.”
Former Placerville mayor Marian Wasburn, who also signed the anti-Measure K argument, suggested the initiative threatens to paralyze planning decisions and could force votes on many projects with nontraditional road designs.
“It’s a little vague,” Wasburn said. “What is a circle? How much of a curve is a curve? I find no good outcome from it, only complications.”
Placerville voters in November will also vote on an initiative – Measure I – that would add a half-cent sales tax increase over 10 years to improve local roads, upgrade the police station and restore City Hall. The City Council voted to direct a minimum of 75 percent of revenue for road and traffic improvements.
Mayor Carl Hagen and Councilwoman Trisha Wilkins signed a ballot argument that calls Measure I a prudent step to “improve our local economy” and promote “healthy roads and restored buildings” that “drive tourism and encourage business.”
Sorensen, who suspects a pro-development motive behind Measure I, joined three other downtown merchants in signing an argument against the initiative. It said Placerville “is asking an already struggling local economy to pay more over the next 10 years for the City Council’s past mistakes.”
Measure K supporter Carolina Smith, who runs a vintage downtown clothing store, Empress, said one of those mistakes was trying to push a traffic circle onto an unwilling populace.
“This is an historic place and right in the middle, they wanted to turn it into suburbia,” said Smith, whose store is near the Druid monument and the proposed roundabout site. “They want to change the whole area because it would save somebody a second driving through.”
She added: “We stood up to the big guys. We got on our horses, rode through town and said, ‘OK, people, what are you for?’ We showed that we have a voice, too.”