A public hearing on a plan that would allow the town to continue plowing snow on 49 currently private roads but would take away their private status drew a big crowd to Riverhead Town Hall Tuesday.
The meeting lasted more than three hours and over 40 people spoke. Most were residents of private roads that have been plowed in the past, even though state law says they shouldn’t have been, and who want to continue receiving that service.
But some speakers were residents of private streets who preferred to keep them private and forgo town plowing.
“We value our private status,” testified George Richards of Beach Road in Laurel.
Beach Road is on a list of private roads the town proposed continue plowing; it will now be removed.
“It will be easier to take roads off the list than it will be to put roads on,” Supervisor Sean Walter said.
Still, other speakers said they were unsure of their community’s position on the matter and needed more time to contact their neighbors.
The Town Board doesn’t plan to finalize the list of roads it will plow and take over until the end of December. The town’s process for getting residents’ input is based on comments at the hearing or letters sent to the board.
At one point in the hearing, some residents of Cedar Court in Laurel said that a neighbor had submitted a letter on behalf of the road’s residents saying they opposed inclusion in the town road system. However, the residents said, after listening to the comments at the hearing, they supported being included and asked that the letter be disregarded, even though the neighbor who wrote it wasn’t present. Town officials asked them to send a new letter.
During the hearing, town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz swore in speakers in as if it were a trial.
“For the roads that remain private, it would be a violation of law for them to be plowed, or otherwise maintained, unless there was a state of emergency declared,” Mr. Kozakiewicz said.
Under the proposal being considered, the town would provide only basic maintenance, such as snow plowing and cold patch services, to currently private roads that agree to accept these services and lose their private status. But the roads will not have to be brought up to town specifications for public streets as is normally the case when the town accepts streets into its highway system.
Once a road loses its private status, “You will no longer be able to keep your private road signs up,” Mr. Kozakiewicz said, explaining that the public could then drive, walk or ride bikes on these roads.
The issue arose earlier this year, when some residents of private roads that had been plowed threatened a lawsuit unless the town repaired the roads, according to town Highway Superintendent George Woodson.
After that, Mr. Woodson sent out a letter to residents indicating that state law prohibited the town from plowing or maintaining private roads.
That set off a firestorm.
Mary DiGaetano of Breezy Point Road in Wading River said she lost the sale of her house because of this letter.
“Our community was deeply disturbed by the letter each resident received from Highway Superintendent George Woodson back in October,” Judith Miller, president of the Oak Hill Association in Baiting Hollow, said from the podium Tuesday.
“We were shocked that he was eliminating winter maintenance services without any discussion or advanced notice,” she said.
“I find it disturbing that snow plowing is targeted for elimination,” said Oak Hills resident Monica Gabrielle.
While the state constitution prohibits the use of public funds on private roads, Section 189 of the state Highway Law also has a provision called “Highways by Use,” which states that any road that has received government services such as plowing for at least 10 years continuously can be deemed a “highway by use,” a designation that allows the town to continue providing the services but that also opens the road to the general public.
At the hearing, town officials asked residents how long the town has been plowing their private streets.
Diane Stuke of Lockitt Drive in Jamesport said that road has always been plowed, even though it is private.
She and others asked about the private beach in their community, and Mr. Walter said the proposal only applies to roads. A private beach will continue to be private, although the roads leading to it would be public if they are accepted as “highways by use.”
“We’ve taken these roads off of the town highway responsibility and get nothing in return for it,” said June Bassimir of Waterview Terrace. “The town doesn’t even pick up our leaves.”
“We need you to come and plow us when we have a lot of snow because I can’t shovel it myself,” said Pat May of Overlook Drive in Aquebogue.
Some residents said their private communities have spent more than $45,000 to plow snow over the past few years.