Sunday, September 26, 2021

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Board considers stricter rules for granting road closures after residents complain about Elon University’s repeated shut-downs of Haggard Avenue

Elon’s board of aldermen floated the idea of new rules on road closures for “special events” after hearing complaints from residents over the repeated shut-down of East Haggard Avenue for Elon University gatherings.

Since October, the university has submitted five requests to have the roadway, the town’s main east-west thoroughfare, closed for at least 24 hours at a time. Approved permits were for homecoming festivities in mid-October, Halloween, and an art installation in the center of the road on November 4, which also resulted in the road being closed on the night of November 3, Election Day.

Two denied permits were for the night of November 3 and the weekend of November 7. The former permit was subsequently revised and re-submitted as a request to close the road for the art installation.

It was the sudden closure for the installation — the permit request was submitted to town manager Richard Roedner that Sunday and processed by staff on Monday — that appeared to frustrate residents, leading to comments to the aldermen outside of town hall. Historically, the town has required a 60-day window between the event and the submission of a permit request, a rule that the manager said town staff is out to stick to moving forward.

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“It’s not fair to staff, to us,” Roedner told the board. “It’s not fair to the public that don’t know about it, and they miss the warning signs one night and it’s closed the next day.”

Adding to the apparent frustration on the part of residents was the small turnout for the art event, a point that Mayor Jerry Tolley mentioned when the issue came before the board during its meeting on November 10.

Tolley went on to ask whether staff had considered other, less-traveled roads that the university could close instead, like Antioch and O’Kelly avenues.

The motivation behind the university’s requests to close the portion of East Haggard Avenue that runs through campus has been, Roedner told the board, a “desire to address the concerns that are being raised by students over a sense of security, sense of safety.” At times, he told the board, the university has closed some of its own “internal roads” for similar reasons. Major roads like Haggard Avenue have also historically been closed for large events like homecoming, graduation, and move-in.

The repeated requests also follow an incident of a caravan of vehicles passing through campus in September after leaving two events to support Donald Trump at ACE Speedway. Following the incident, the university issued no-trespass notices to six individuals who allegedly harassed students and faculty while passing through the campus.

Alderman proposes limiting how many times road can be closed

Alderman Davis Montgomery suggested that the town has two options: either considering each permit request separately or creating a rule on how many times the road can be closed.

“When you’ve got hundreds of people going back and forth across that road, it makes sense to me,” he said. “But to close it or have it allowed to be closed for any type of a public event when there’s other venues — not only when there’s other venues available but even when it’s not — I think we should just avoid closing the public road.”

The road is owned by the town and not the state, Roedner told the board.

Alderman Monti Allison, agreeing with Montgomery, added that he questioned whether the art installation on November 4 was actually presented to the town’s residents as a public event.

“When I say that,” he continued, “I don’t think that the university is soliciting the rest of the Elon community to join in. It gives the appearance as if ‘we’re trying to close you out.'”

Allison, reiterating Montgomery’s earlier suggestion, also asked whether there should be a limit for how many times any organization or resident can request a road closure. Both aldermen said that the board needed to provide more guidance to staff on what warrants a closure.

“Again, I’ll just make the distinction of this as being a road,” Montgomery said. “It’s not, in my mind, a typical event space at all — not by any means. It’s not to me.”

Alderman Mark Greene, pointing to his own recent interactions with residents, said that “good common sense” should be factored into the town’s rulings on the permit requests.

“I think our concern is the fact that we’re seeing this every weekend just about,” he said. “I have had a few citizens come to me and say, ‘Is the university going to close the road permanently and have that for the university?’ The citizens that I spoke to did not like the fact that we were closing it for these fall events, and I agree, to be perfectly honest with you.”

Acknowledging the concerns that the September caravan raised, Greene said that he hadn’t heard of similar concerns since.

Still, university representative Jeff Stein told the board during its meeting that the university’s officials want to discuss, in addition to campus events, “ongoing and larger safety concerns related to East Haggard Avenue and going back over many years.”

Town manager says students concerned about safety

While Roedner said that closing the roadway has served to make “a large, uninterrupted area” for campus events, he added that, since the caravan this fall, “there has been a sincere concern at the student level, which has translated to the administration level, about the safety of the student body that has been an issue for years on a smaller scale.”

The town’s manager pointed to incidences of “individual vehicles that students have felt threatened by at crosswalks” as an example.

The complaints about the vehicles appeared to strike Montgomery as common among most universities, some of which, he said, don’t shut down streets.

For her part, alderman Emily Sharpe said the town should be “careful in setting limits” because of the potential for the university to hold “large-scale events back-to-back.”

While Sharpe admitted that some of the events held this fall could’ve been held without closing the road, she warned that restrictions by the town might lead to “having to deny something that really does warrant closure.” In that event, Montgomery said, the town could consider a provision allowing the town’s manager to approve an “emergency request.”

Sharpe also suggested that the town may be overreacting to the road closure and that it isn’t overly inconvenient for drivers to make a detour.

“I tested it, and it takes less than two-and-a-half minutes to avoid that road when it’s closed,” she said. “I went in three different directions. So, to me, I just think that we’re making a really big deal out of something that might cost someone two-and-a-half minutes of their time to see other parts of our great town. Knowing that this is really due to special circumstances because of the pandemic, I don’t know that it’s quite as big of a deal as it’s being made, personally.”

Ultimately, the board decided to have staff, as well as a couple board members, meet with university officials about drafting rules on future road closures. Suggestions that come from the meeting will then be brought before the board in the coming months.

In the meantime, the town’s manager told The Alamance News last week that the university doesn’t plan to submit another permit request until March of next year.

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