Riverhead Town Highway Superintendent George Woodson says he will sue the Town Board whether it pays for his legal fees or not.
In a 3-2 split, Town Board members voted Oct. 3 against hiring an attorney for Mr. Woodson and paying his legal fees should he decide to sue the town over a Sept. 6 Town Board resolution in which a majority voted to provide paving and other highway services to roads within the Oak Hills Association in Baiting Hollow, which had been private roads.
“I’m not spending taxpayer money on private roads,” Mr. Woodson told the Town Board at the time of that vote.
He said this week that, by law, the Town Board is required to pay his attorney, but that his lawsuit will be worded so as to require the town to pay his legal fees if he wins.
“It’s silly,” Supervisor Sean Walter said of the resolution asking the town to pay for Mr. Woodson’s attorney. “Why would we hire a lawyer so he can sue us?”
Mr. Walter was joined by councilmen Jim Wooten and Tim Hubbard is opposing the resolution. Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman John Dunleavy opposed the Sept. 6 resolution and supported paying Mr. Woodson’s legal fees on the lawsuit.
The Town Board had voted in 2015 to provide snow plowing, cold patch and sanding services for more than 50 private roads in town, including those in Oak Hills. Other services that town roads normally receive, like drainage and paving, were not included.
The move came as part as the town’s proposed abbreviated version of the state’s “highway by use” regulations, which states that all lands that have been used by the public as a highway for the period of 10 years or more, “shall be a highway, with the same force and effect as if it had been duly laid out and recorded as a highway, and the town superintendent shall open all such highways to the width of at least three rods (16.5 yards)”.
In order to quality as a “highway by use,” a municipality must show that the road has been used by public and maintained by the town for at least 10 years.
The town law was limited to snow plowing, sanding and cold patch services.
In 2016, the Oak Hills Association filed a lawsuit against the town seeking to have a state Supreme Court judge require the town to provide all highway services within the association, which has 85 homes and 11 roads. The suit said the town “erroneously interpreted and misapplied” the highway by use law.
That lawsuit, which also names Mr. Woodson as a defendant, is still pending and officials say settlement discussions have taken place. The Sept. 6 resolution gave Oak Hills the additional road services they sought in their lawsuit.
Mr. Woodson says he will not provide those additional services to Oak Hills, and he feels the town’s action will set a precedent whereby other areas with private roads will demand the same services.
He estimates that it would cost at least $300,000 if the town had to pave all the private roads within its borders.
“And that’s not including drainage, condemnation, work hours and other things,” Mr. Woodson said. “I don’t think they understand what they are doing and the amount of money it will cost the Town of Riverhead.”
He said the whole point of a “highway by use” road is that the road is used by the public. He cited the road that runs through the Enterprise Park at Calverton as an example, and said no one other than residents of Oak Hills will use those roads.
Mr. Walter said the money to provide these services can come from the surplus Mr. Woodson has accumulated in his budget.
The Oak Hills Association claims in its lawsuit that Riverhead Town “has consistently performed various maintenance services on Oak Hills Association roads,” including snow plowing, sanding and salting, drain vacuuming, lighting and water maintenance, removing tree branches, leaves and other debris and roadway patching.
The association maintains that the town should be bound by the state’s “highway by use” law.
Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said the private roads for which the town provides only plowing, sanding and road patch services are not considered town roads.