Town Board floats plan to get private roads plowed

Beach Way, a private road in Baiting Hollow. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Beach Way, a private road in Baiting Hollow. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

The town may be changing its code so it could plow private roads.

But only during supervisor-declared snow emergencies, according to a proposal to list such roads in the town code for emergency purposes.

The Riverhead Town Board is reacting to residents upset after Highway Superintendent George Woodson sent a letter indicating the highway department would no longer be plowing those streets in snow storms — unless a state of emergency is called.

A state of emergency is different and more rare than a snow emergency.

Supervisor Sean Walter also asked Mr. Woodson at a meeting Thursday in Town Hall to continue plowing the private roads for this coming winter while the town works on adopting the proposed code change, which would only apply to snow plowing and sanding and not other services roads in the town highway system receive.

Mr. Walter said it would take until December for the town to issue a legal notice for the public hearing needed for the code change, hold the hearing and then adopt the legislation.

Mr. Woodson was noncommittal.

“Could it work?” Mr. Woodson said of the plan. “Possibly, yes. But I want to know my legal options on this.”

The highway superintendent plans to meet with town attorneys in executive session next Thursday to discuss the matter further.

The state constitution prohibits use of public funds on private roads or property, but the town has been plowing many of these streets for many years, some say more than 40 years in some cases.

While the state constitution prohibits it, the state highway law includes a section called “highways by use” which appears to allow municipalities to continue plowing certain roads if it has done so for more than 10 years.

Specifically, it says: “All lands which shall have been used by the public as a highway for the period of ten 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 roads.”

Mr. Woodson said he sent the letter after a resident of a private road threatened to sue the highway department for damaging the road with a snow plow.

Mr. Walter said the term “private roads” isn’t a good description of all the roads in question. “Undedicated,” is the term he suggested, since they are not dedicated into the town highway system. The term private roads implies gated communities where the public is not allowed, he said.

Residents of some of these roads urged the town to continue to plow.

“This is an issue of huge concern to all of the residents that received this letter,” said Monique Gablenz, one of three residents of Oak Hills Drive, a private road, who attended Thursday’s meeting, which was a public Town Board work session.

“The snowplowing, sanding, salting and other services have been performed for very long period of time to these communities,” Ms. Gablenz said.

Ms. Gablenz, a former deputy supervisor under Joe Janoski, said the residents’ main concern is with safety.

“Everybody is very on edge about what’s going to happen this upcoming winter season,” she said.

Mr. Walter said that if the roads in question can be added to the town’s snow emergency code, he will call more snow emergencies to ensure that the roads are plowed.

A snow emergency is different from a state of emergency, he said, in that a state of emergency involves closing Town Hall and paying essential employees who must work time and a half.

The town in 2004 officially added 74 roads into the town road system that were private roads the town had been plowing for more than 10 years.

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