Home Opinion Greg Blass Riverhead’s private roads conundrum

Riverhead’s private roads conundrum

Road sign previously posted on a street in Oak Hills. It has since been removed.

The Town of Riverhead should not only snowplow the roads of at least one private community, but should also pick up leaves, clean out storm drains, repair pot holes, maintain lighting and water lines, and even pave these private roads. So says the Oak Hills Association in their lawsuit filed last September, where they seek a N.Y. Supreme Court order requiring the town to do just that, on all two miles of OakHills’ private roads.

Much has already been reported in the local news about this controversy. And the new Riverhead supervisor just brought her town board colleagues into executive session with the Oak Hills residents association to discuss it. So let’s consider some details that deserve more attention.

First, a substantial number of the owners of the 85 homes in Oak Hills, just north of Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow, oppose being any part of this lawsuit. They apprehend a victory in court as a loss of their privacy, and particularly their exclusive use of their private association’s beach. Of this they are most protective.

Last summer, a couple of Riverhead residents, who live outside of Oak Hills, went to that beach merely to take a picture of the Long Island Sound sunset. They were promptly told they were not welcome, and would “get a ticket” if they did not leave. Other “intruders” taking the stairs down to that beach are routinely told to hit the road.

For years, decades in fact, the Riverhead Town Highway Department foolishly serviced many of the roads of such private communities. Literally all the other towns on LI carefully avoided this, but in Riverhead’s never-ending soap opera, earlier town boards looked the other way, going along to get along. When it came to Oak Hills, the town would snowplow the half-mile road (Oak Drive) to the beach, and another smaller street (Harper Road).

Enter the newly elected and current highway superintendent, Gio Woodson. After taking office in 2008, he warned the town board of this unlawful practice of public funds for private property in which his and their predecessors indulged. He also discovered how one highway department employee was in business on his own servicing the rest of the Oak Hills roads, using town trucks and equipment to clear and maintain their neighborhood, getting paid on the side by various Oak Hills residents.

Fed up with the selective use of town resources for private, exclusionary communities, Woodson said the law should apply equally to everyone. He correctly argued that a private community has to dedicate their roads to the town, and the town should only accept them, and then maintain them, if the roads meet minimum highway standards. Woodson and his engineers calculate that it will cost well over $2 million to upgrade most of Oak Hills’ roads to those standards, given their lack of curbs, drainage, etc.

This brings to mind a famous episode in the 1890s when NYC’s new police commissioner got fed up with the selective enforcement of the “Sunday Blue Laws,” which banned the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Elected officials would go along to get along as politically connected saloons, restaurants and the like served booze day and night on Sunday. The rookie commish put an end to it, standing firm that everybody will obey the Sunday ban, until the law is changed. The commish won a major, raging, months-long battle, and the ban on alcohol sales on Sunday was enforced equally. That police commish was none other than Long Island’s own Teddy Roosevelt.

The Oak Hills Association — at least its members who support the lawsuit — have no use for Teddy Roosevelt types in Riverhead’s highway department. And they know that a lot rides on their lawsuit’s outcome. Riverhead has over 20 other private communities besides Oak Hills who are watching this drama closely. They have already chosen, for now, at least, to maintain their own roads, openly admitting that the privacy of their communities, and their beaches, take priority. They recoil in horror at that pesky state law that the beach at the end of any town-owned or town-serviced road becomes a public beach. They dread the thought of rabble-rousing, boisterous mobs trampling the dunes with beach umbrellas and tailgate parties.

But the Oak Hills folks, or some of them, simply want the best of both worlds. They contemplate a court victory where the town’s taxpayers will upgrade, pave and maintain their roads, yet keep the Oak Hills beach on the Sound to themselves. Taking pics of any sunsets will be only the chosen people’s privilege.

All this is set against a background of typical Riverhead politics on the previous town board. The then-supervisor probably regrets an e-mail he sent to the Oak Hills crew, proclaiming, just before their lawsuit was filed, his agreement with their cause, even urging a march-on-Versailles type of protest on the highway department offices.

But the Oak Hills activists, for their part, unexpectedly stormed town hall instead. Some of the rest of the board made nice with their own squishy signals, but all would have preferred to kick the issue down the road as had been done in Riverhead for years. Predictably, most on the board and the former supervisor backtracked and voted to order Woodson, over his objections, to perform snow removal for Oak Hill’s “streets.”

It’s no surprise that the Oak Hills lawsuit is pushing for much more, throwing in for good measure the former supe’s e-mail of support as a lawsuit exhibit. This made him and two others on the town board ever so cranky at Woodson. So they refused to pay his legal bills, as state law requires, for his defense in this lawsuit (Team Oak Hills is suing him as well as the town). In reply, Woodson had to sue them, and, as always, the town board backtracked, voting a cool $50K on the town tab for the highway superintendent’s defense, and that’s just for starters. Oh, well…

The adversaries in this courtroom drama may or may not find a way to settle things. But somehow here in Riverhead, in court decisions or settlements of this sort, the taxpayers always lose. Considering what’s really at stake, all we can do is watch, wait, and shake our heads. You can easily guess the outcome no matter who wins — there’s already more in the pipeline to be lapped onto our Riverhead tax bill.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg