Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson has come under fire by Town Supervisor Sean Walter for informing residents who live on private roads that the town will no longer plow them.
Walter says residents should “protest the highway department” for Woodson’s decision, which the supervisor says is a reversal of town policy and may even be contrary to state law.
But Woodson says the practice of plowing private roads began under his predecessor in office, Mark Kwasna and itself violates the state constitution, which prohibits the expenditure of town highway funds on non-town roads.
Woodson has begun advising residents that his crews will no longer plow the town’s private roads except in emergencies — and residents have begun complaining to the supervisor’s office, according to Walter.
“It’s basic constituent service,” Walter said. “He may be highway superintendent but when all hell breaks loose, they come to the supervisor’s office. And they should. The buck stops here.”
Woodson said he has continued to provide snow clearing services on private roads, but when residents started threatening to sue the town unless Woodson repaved their private roads, that’s when he knew he had to draw the line.
“People were upset that snow plows damaged their roads. Plow damage happens,” Woodson said. “That’s a given. We would go in there and fix the hole with some cold patch but there’s no way we’re repaving the road. It’s against the law. And I got an opinion from the town attorney’s office to support my position,” Woodson said.
“Once you start repaving it too, what’s next? Correcting drainage problems on roads that weren’t built to town specs? Then you have a real big problem on your hands. It’s costly. With the town budget being what it is, you can’t afford to take that on.”
“No other town does this. Why Riverhead with its budget deficit? Maybe that’s why we’re in the shape we’re in, playing politics with things like this,” Woodson said.
Walter argues that a provision of the state highway law actually requires it. The “highways by use” section of the law says that if a private road is used by the public as if it were a public highway, it becomes a highway “by use.”
Woodson doesn’t buy the argument. The private roads are generally not through-roads, he said. “The public doesn’t use them to get from one place to another. They’re used by the residents who live there and the people they invite to use them,” he said.
With his crew of 30 men and about 420 “lane miles” to plow, Woodson said, “I can barely take care of what we have to plow as it is. The private roads add too much of a burden.”
There are 77 private roads in the township, according to a document Woodson provided, not including those roads in private communities where homeowners associations pay for snow clearing and maintenance. The town has been plowing “the majority” of those 77 private roads, the highway superintendent acknowledges.
Woodson drafted a letter to residents informing them that the highway department may not use town funds to maintain or repair private roadways.
“I’m begging him not to send it out,” Walter said. Requiring individual homeowners to assume responsibility for snow-plowing now would be an undue burden on them, he said.
“I think the town attorney’s office will work with him to find a solution, a mechanism for limited maintenance without taking on responsibility for major projects, such as drainage,” he said. “It seems to me there’s a disconnect between the state constitution and the ‘highways by use’ statute. When we’re looking at this problem we have to come down on the side of constituent service. All town taxpayers pay the same highway tax, whether they live on a public or private road.”
“Why is everything such a big thing in this town?” Woodson asked. “Why do we always have to make mountains out of mole hills?”
Woodson and Walter have butted heads over many issues — from purchasing vehicles to declaring snow emergencies and banning on-street parking during snowstorms to enforcing town code provisions banning obstructions such as boulders placed within the town’s right-of-way.
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