Highway Superintendent George Woodson addresses a packed meeting room on the subject of private road snow-plowing and maintenance Dec. 2, 2014. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Dozens of residents who want the town to continue plowing the private roads they live on gave the town board an earful during a standing-room-only, three-hour public hearing yesterday afternoon at Riverhead Town Hall.

The hearing was the board’s first step in an attempt to formalize the town’s long-standing policy of plowing and clearing snow from most of the 80 or so privately owned roads in Riverhead. Board members and Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson have said they’d like to continue that policy as long as the town is protected from landowners’ claims for additional services, such as major road repairs, repaving and drainage work. Section 189 of the state highway law allows the town to formally extend snow-clearing services to private roads without liability for those other responsibilities. The subject of yesterday’s public hearing was the designation of 49 private roads as “section 189 roads” for the purpose of snow-clearing.

Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson being sworn in at yesterday's town board hearing.
Riverhead Highway Superintendent George Woodson being sworn in at yesterday’s town board hearing.

While private roads are owned by individual property owners or homeowners associations, the property owners who live on private roads pay the same town highway taxes as property owners who live along the town’s public roads. Private roads, however, are not open to vehicular or pedestrian traffic — technically, though often not in practice.

In order to be eligible for designation as “section 189 roads” or “highways by use” the roads must have been receiving some municipal services for at least 10 years and must have been “utilized by the public” for at least 10 years. Once the roads are designated as “section 189 roads” the public’s right to traverse them is made permanent. The town acquires, by code, a surface easement over the roadways. But the roads are not taken into the town’s inventory of public roads and the town is not responsible for repairs, repaving or drainage work.

The town highway department has cleared snow on most private roads for decades. Woodson, a veteran highway department employee who worked his way up through the ranks and was elected superintendent in 2007, earlier this year became concerned over threats of litigation by a homeowner on a private road demanding road repairs. The homeowner said his driveway apron was damaged by a town plow. Woodson consulted with town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz.

Town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz.
Town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz.

Kozakiewicz said he researched the town’s duties and liabilities and became concerned himself about the town extending municipal services to private properties — something clearly prohibited by the state constitution, he said.

The conversations between Woodson and Kozakiewicz this summer led to the highway superintendent sending a letter to private road residents this fall informing them that, effective immediately, town highway crews would no longer plow their roads.

And then the snow hit the fan.

Individual residents and homeowner associations descended on town hall to complain and town officials eventually decided to follow the lead of other municipalities upstate and designate roads that have long been plowed as “highways by use” under section 189 of the state highway law.

Supervisor Sean Walter was immediately critical of the highway superintendent’s decision to suspend snow-plowing of private roads. One resident during yesterday’s hearing testified that Walter called Woodson’s actions “disrespectful and outrageous.”

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The audience listens as Highway Superintendent George Woodson testifies about the highway department’s past practices with regard to plowing private roads.

“The town board does not have the ability to order the highway superintendent to plow the road,” Walter told the audience in the packed meeting room yesterday. “The only thing we can do is incorporate the road this way. It forces him to plow it.”

“Our community was deeply disturbed by the letter each resident received from Highway Superintendent Gio Woodson back in October,” Judith Miller, president of the Oak Hills Association in Baiting Hollow told the board. “We were shocked that he was eliminating winter maintenance services without any discussion or advance notice,” she said. “We pay the same amount of taxes that everyone else in the Town of Riverhead pays.”

Miller questioned why the town’s published list of private roads to be designated under section 189 included only two of the 10 roads in her sound-front community, though all roads there have historically received the same services, which she said include sanding, salting and plowing each winter.

“The failure to include all roads must be addressed,” Miller said.

Oak Hills resident Ed Goldstein, who said he lives on one of the roads left off the proposed list, said the board was rushing to “solve a problem that doesn’t exist.” He asked the board to table the action until at least next spring.

The town highway department has provided these “vital services for 20 or 30 or more years,” Goldstein said. “Sadly this is apparently not the goal of Mr. Woodson, whose actions have been described by the supervisor as disrespectful and outrageous and I agree,” he said.

“Woodson’s concerns for the lack of necessary funding, spurious claims of legality, reaction to a possible lawsuit for damage to a driveway by his plows and an ongoing and public feud with the supervisor should not put the lives of hundreds of Riverhead citizens in danger,” Goldstein said.

Other residents of communities across the town also asked the board to include roads that were left off the list.

Wellswood Civic president George Goode of Baiting Hollow said his community is concerned about loss of control over maintenance decisions.
Wellswood Civic president George Goode of Baiting Hollow said his community is concerned about loss of control over maintenance decisions.

Still others, whose roads were included on the town’s list, expressed concerns about what the designation might mean for their communities, many of which dot the town’s shorelines. Residents expressed worries about being able to keep their beaches private and others worried about having beach-goers park along their roads.

George Goode, president of Wellswood Civic Association in Baiting Hollow, said he was concerned that the proposed amendments to the town code could be construed to require the property owners to pay for improvements deemed necessary by some entity other than the civic association board of directors.

Though the town has plowed Summit and Meadow drives since the 1940s, Goode said, the civic organization spends “about $15,000 every four years” to pave the roads.

“We’re concerned about losing control to the point where someone else decides what maintenance is required and we have to foot the bill,” Goode said.

Some residents are so concerned about the impacts of designation as “highways by use” that they are asking to be removed from the town’s proposed list, even though it means they will no longer get municipal snow plowing services. Representatives of Ock-A-Bock Terrace and Bay Woods in Aquebogue said they believe their communities would like to have their roads removed from the town’s list, but asked for a few more weeks to be able to poll their residents and reach consensus on the subject.

Walter said he’d like to have everything resolved and adopt resolutions designating “highways by use” and amending the code to outline the town’s responsibilities for them by the end of this month.

After the meeting, Walter said he would “love to incorporate as many roads as possible.” It wouldn’t impact the highway department’s budget and it wouldn’t affect the ability of the highway department staff to keep up with the work “because they’re already plowing these roads,” Walter said.

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Wading River resident Mary DiGaetano testified that she lost a deal to sell her Breezy Point Road home this fall after Woodson’s letter went out advising residents there the town would no longer plow their road.

Whatever actions are taken, they come too late for one Wading River resident, a widow who said a contract to sell her home of 23 years was lost when Woodson issued his letter in October.

“I was all packed and ready to go to contract, then this came out and I lost the deal,” Mary DiGaetano said. “I’m a senior citizen. I live on a fixed income so I understand about budgets. Mr. Woodson, you’ve got some shaking up to do.”

Woodson said afterwards he was, overall, happy with the outcome of the hearing.

“We needed clarity on what we can and can’t legally do on private roads,” Woodson said. “Whatever was done in years past was done against the law,” he said. “Now we’re getting it straightened out. We’ll get a list of roads and we’ll move on.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.