East Street in Jamesport, a private road. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
To plow or not to plow?
That was the question this morning, as Supervisor Sean Walter and Highway Superintendent George Woodson went toe-to-toe in an argument over whether or not the town highway department should be plowing private roads.
June Bassemir, who lives in the private community of Waterview Terrace in Jamesport, came to Town Hall to complain at the beginning of Thursday’s work session to bring the issue to the Town Board’s attention. She said she had heard about Mr. Woodson’s intentions to stop plowing private roads a few months ago from a highway department employee.
Before the meeting had even started, Mr. Walter jumped right in.
“It’s unacceptable for him to be doing this, and the residents should stand up and protest against the highway superintendent,” he told Ms. Bassemir. He said a Wading River resident told him that the policy of not plowing private roads cost her a real estate sale, because Fannie Mae has a provision that it will not loan money for property that doesn’t have a road maintenance agreement.
The supervisor also said that Mr. Woodson was sending out a letter regarding the new policy.
“Pursuant to New York State Law,” the letter from Mr. Woodson states, “the town, inclusive of the highway department, may not use town personnel and equipment to maintain or repair private roadways, remove trees and brush, plow snow from private roads etc., except in the event of an emergency such as a serious illness or fire.”
“I asked him not to send it out,” Mr. Walter told Ms. Bassemir, saying it shows “total disrespect.”
“I’ll say it on the record,” he said. “You should be picketing the highway superintendent.”
Mr. Woodson was not in the room at the time but apparently caught wind of the supervisor’s statements and showed up later in the meeting.
Click here for our live coverage from Thursday’s meeting.
“Are you actually telling people to protest the highway department?” Mr. Woodson asked. ”[Plowing private roads] is against the law.”
In an interview later on Thursday, Mr. Woodson said that he had been approached by residents living on some private roads in town — he did not want to specify which ones — who threatened to sue the town if it didn’t pave the private roads they said were damaged by town plows.
The highway department never plowed private roads before his predecessor, Mark Kwasna, unless there was more than six inches of snow, Mr. Woodson said.
In 2004, the Town Board accepted 75 private roads into the town road system following a public hearing. Mr. Kwasna, who was highway superintendent, said at the time that many of those roads had been maintained by the town for 20 to 30 years.
“If we’ve been maintaining them, we’re basically taking on the liability anyway,” Mr. Kwasna said in 2004.
Mr. Woodson said Thursday that Riverhead is the only town in the county that plows private roads regularly.
Locally, Southold does not plow private roads, and Southampton does, but only when the supervisor declares a town wide emergency, officials from those towns told The News-Review.
Mr. Walter said he worked with Mr. Kwasna on legislation to allow some private roads in the town to be plowed. He feels the town could face a lawsuit if it stops plowing a road it has plowed for more than 10 years, even if it is a private road.
“If we’ve been plowing the roads for 10 years and now we’re going to stop, what do you say to those residents?” Mr. Walter said. “It’s basic constituent service.”
Mr. Woodson said he has met with civic associations and homeowners groups from the private roads to explain his position.
Rich Stephenson, the president of the Waterview Terrace Civic Association, which has private roads, says the town has been plowing those streets for 30 years. He said he has met with Mr. Woodson and town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz on the issue.
He said losing that service would be a large financial burden on residents there, many of whom are senior citizens, if they had to hire a private contractor or buy their own plow — and it could be worse for streets that do not have a civic association.
But most importantly, he said, “We need to know immediately what the town is going to do. There’s no time to sit on the fence.”
According to Mr. Kozakiewicz, the state constitution prevents towns from using tax money on private streets. However, another section of state law allows a road that has been maintained for 10 years or more to be accepted into the road system of that municipality.
Officials say one upstate town has divided its roads into three different categories, each of which is permitted a certain degree of town services. Riverhead officials say they may consider something like that.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mr. Walter worked with Mr. Kwasna on legislation that would allow some private roads to be paved. He worked to write legislation that would permit private roads to be plowed.