Snowplowing saga erupts at town forum

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Resident Joyce George delivers a statement at a public forum on the town’s plowing policy last Tuesday evening. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Two hundred residents packed into a Colchester selectboard meeting last Tuesday night to stake out a position on the town’s policy of plowing only a percentage of private roads, a highly charged debate that’s been kicked around the community for nearly 50 years.

Since 1970, the town has provided snow and ice removal to just 14 of the 41 miles of private road in Colchester, an unusual and inequitable practice that causes a host of liabilities, according to town lawyer Brian Monaghan.

On the table now is a trio of paths forward: Keep with the status quo, halt winter maintenance on all private roads or provide the snow and ice removal service to all roads, public and otherwise.

Last Tuesday’s lively crowd dwarfed attendance and participation at last Town Meeting Day, forcing officials to move the assembly from the town offices to the Colchester High School auditorium at the last minute.

Mostly attended by residents who live on private roads, close to 50 participants offered comments for three hours, on topics ranging from emergency service access to tax assessment values impacted by plowing practices.

Town manager Dawn Francis said remarks continued to fly in via email, phone call and visits to the town offices long after the forum ended.

A tally released this Monday evening showed 393 residents favored keeping the status quo, 20 believed the town should plow all private roads and 24 thought Colchester should stop the practice altogether. An additional 22 people submitted alternate ideas, according to the spreadsheet. The statistics include comments submitted on behalf of several residents in an association.

At the start of last week’s meeting, Francis told residents the town would save just $20,000 a year by ceasing to plow the 14 miles of private roads.

Adding 27 miles of private road, however, would require the addition of two more plow trucks and drivers, costing an extra $392,100 in the first year and $191,000 thereafter, Francis said.

But Stan Bajuk, a resident on Broadlake Road co-representing the Sand Dunes Improvement Association, began to poke holes in the town’s provided dataset, prompting an enthusiastic crowd response.

In a subsequent interview, Bajuk said he and fellow association members didn’t need to spend much time parsing through the map to stumble on some inconsistencies.

Bajuk noticed a handful of instances where a public road was only accessible via a private road, meaning plows have to drive along the stretch to reach their destination, according to the provided map.

He also found a large portion of private roads were contained in St. Michael’s College and the Vermont National Guard campuses, organizations he speculated are not interested in town plowing.

Subtracting those categories, plus roads with only one residence, Bajuk believes the number of unplowed private roads seeking town services would drop significantly — likely bringing the estimated cost down with it.

Amid a rousing round of applause, selectboard chairwoman Nadine Scibek asked Bajuk to share his data with the staff.

“It’s a smart town,” Bajuk told the Sun. “There are a lot of good people, and I think that’s the good thing about democracy. People can speak their minds and share information.”

Bajuk doesn’t think the town is trying to mislead residents and warned others to not take his numbers as gospel, but said he wanted to make sure they “ask the right questions” before deciding.

“We just spent half an hour. Somebody should spend eight hours looking at this,” Bajuk said. “Somewhere, this list needs to be scrubbed.”

Another popular assertion came from Joyce George, treasurer of the Mills Point Association, who pointed to a passage on page 89 of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns handbook, which says the town may have “acquired the road by dedication and acceptance” by providing plowing service, she read.

“Our stand is that you have legally taken over the 14 miles of public roads in accordance with your handbook,” George told the board. “I have an answer to everything your [lawyer] presented.”

Records provided by town clerk Karen Richards show voters first approved using town plowing equipment to “be used where feasible” on private roads with two or more residences occupied during the winter in 1970.

Six years later, the item was slightly altered when taxpayers approved plowing private roads serving just one year-round resident if it was plowed prior to 1970. But by March 1990, voters had a change of heart and revoked the policy of winter maintenance on all private roads.

Just months later, the selectboard was petitioned to “conduct a reconsideration of the question.” A special vote in May 1990 restored the service to private road dwellers.

In 1997, a voter-approved charter amendment granted the selectboard power to establish a winter maintenance policy, following a study in 1995. The issue largely sat stagnant for another 20 years, until the citizen-run governance committee recommended a formalized policy in 2015, according to town documents.

Town officials and selectboard members did not directly engage with residents at the forum but addressed some of the frequent assertions during a board work session on Monday afternoon.

Town manager Dawn Francis (second from left) and assistant town manager Aaron Frank (far left) sit with members of the Colchester Selectboard during a lively public discussion about the town’s longstanding policy for plowing private roads last Tuesday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

When Scibek wondered if the town had updated its database in accordance with Bijuk’s observations, Francis said she wasn’t entirely sure the town should remove the properties.

She said the roads at St. Michael’s College and the Guard base meet the definitions for private roads and thus likely need to be considered.

She also acknowledged some factual errors in the plowing status list distributed by the town but is confident the original data was at least 90 percent accurate.

Monaghan, the attorney, also stood by his assessment this week. The board later entered a closed executive session to discuss legal specifics.

Monaghan, himself a former VLCT employee, notably said he didn’t believe George’s assertion would hold up in court because the road has not otherwise been “unconditionally dedicated” as a public access by the residents who live there.

Selectboard members held their individual opinions relatively close during the work session but scheduled a vote on the matter for their October 10 meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the town offices.

“We should be the board that is willing to make the definitive decision,” selectboard member Jacki Murphy said.