A dispute over the maintenance, repair and plowing of roads in the Baiting Hollow community of Oak Hills may finally be over.
In a decision filed yesterday, a State Supreme Court judge for Suffolk County ruled that roads in the Oak Hills community were made public highways by Town Board resolution in 2015, and that obligates the town highway superintendent to provide services due all public highways as required by State Highway Law.
The 12-page decision and order signed by Justice David Reilly on Friday essentially awards the Oak Hills Association the relief it sought in the lawsuit, filed in 2016, challenging the town’s refusal to treat the community’s roads as public highways for purposes other than snow removal.
The town can still appeal the trial court’s judgment. The decision whether to appeal is up to the Town Board.
The dispute over responsibility for the roads in the community dates back to October 2014, when then-Highway Superintendent George Woodson notified residents that the town highway department would not maintain or remove snow from the roadways except in an emergency, because they were private roads.
Woodson’s letter sparked an uproar in the Long Island Soundfront community of 85 homes. Residents descended on Town Hall to complain.
The Town Board in December 2014 held a public hearing to determine whether the Oak Hills roads had become “public highways by use” under Highway Law §189. Highway Law §189 states that “lands used by the public as a highway for the period of 10 years or more” shall be a public highway.
In 2015, the board passed resolutions finding that Oak Hills roads were “Town of Riverhead 189 Highways” and that the highway superintendent was required to keep the designated roads “open in order to allow safe passage and emergency service access,” but was not required to pave, widen, install drainage or otherwise improve the existing surface of the town § 189 “highways by use.”
The Oak Hills Association sued, arguing that the town’s limitations on its duties to maintain “town 189 roads” were “erroneous as a matter of law” and seeking a judgment that the town is required to treat all Oak Hills roadways “as public highways equal to other Town highways generally such that the Town becomes responsible for their condition.” That responsibility runs the gamut from pothole repair, sweeping and maintaining catch basins, to resurfacing and sealing, snow plowing, sanding and salting, and removing dead or dangerous trees in the roadways, according to the Oak Hills Complaint.
The town sought a judgment declaring that the 2015 resolutions only require the the town to “perform snow plowing, sanding, salting, and basic maintenance only” in Oak Hills. The town also asked the court to order public access to the Long Island Sound via the Oak Hills community’s private beach.
The town also asked the court to declare its own 2015 resolutions, which designated Oak Hills roads “town 189 highways,” null and void — and rule that the roads in the community are private roads after all.
The Oak Hills Association met its burden of proof for a summary judgment, the court ruled. But the court said it would not instruct the town about the “particular manner” in which it is obligated to repair or maintain the community’s roadways. The 2015 resolutions determined that the Oak Hills roads were public highways by use under Section 189 of the State Highway Law, the judge ruled.
“Accordingly, OHA has shown that defendants are responsible for all aspects of maintaining OHA Roadways,” the judge wrote. “This also includes maintenance of any drainage structures in OHA Roadways,” he wrote.
“Because OHA has shown that OHA Roadways, pursuant to the 2015 Resolutions, are public highways by use under Highway Law § 189, it has also shown that (Highway Superintendent) Zaleski is responsible for the duties of highway superintendents delineated in Highway Law §§ 140 and 322 with respect to OHA Roadways,” the decision says.
The town cannot limit its responsibilities with respect to “189 roadways” because it cannot, by resolution or local law, supersede state law, the court said. “As noted … Highway Law § 189 states that a public highway by use ‘shall be a highway with the same force and effect as if it had been duly laid out and recorded as a highway,’ and Highway Law § 140 makes a town’s highway superintendent responsible for maintaining all town roads,” Justice Reilly wrote.
The court is barred “by principles involving separation of powers” from ordering the highway superintendent to do specific tasks, as the Oak Hills complaint sought, because the highway superintendent’s responsibilities are governed by state law, the court ruled.
The town, the Town Board, and the individual Town Board members lack standing to challenge the Town Board’s 2015 Resolutions, “because they are not aggrieved” by the resolutions, the court ruled.
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