Town eyes plowing policy for private roads

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Selectboard members say they’re prepared to establish a formal policy regarding the winter maintenance of Colchester’s private roads, making a decisive move in a saga that has stretched on for nearly 50 years.

Presently, the town provides snow and ice removal service to only 34 percent, or 14 miles, of Colchester’s private roads, according to a white paper authored by town manager Dawn Francis and public works director Bryan Osborne.

The board plans to convene a public meeting on September 12, where members will decide whether to stick with the status quo, halt all winter operations on private roads or convert eligible private roads to town highways, according to a press release from board chairwoman Nadine Scibek.

There, the board hopes to hear from affected property owners, some of whom have raised concerns about the equity of the practice that has been in place since 1970, Scibek said.

“This board is ready and willing to adopt a formal policy,” Scibek wrote. “Engaging the public in open dialogue is necessary and welcomed and will help guide and inform the board’s final policy decision this issue.”

In a 10-page memorandum written in July and released to the public earlier this month, town attorney Brian Monaghan recommends the town forego the maintenance of private roads altogether, citing liability concerns, cost and an imbalanced treatment of taxpayers.

“Certain residents or property owners are clearly receiving special treatment from the town, while other residents are not entitled to the same special benefits,” Monaghan wrote.

“This is a situation in where a certain class of people is benefited, and it is very obvious, because residents can readily watch a town snowplow out plowing private roads.”

Indeed, public complaints dating back to 1990 are included in a board handout.

According to the archival meeting minutes, residents expressed frustration with too-infrequent maintenance of their own roads and pointed to the implicit plowing promises contained in building permits.

And in a resolution presented last September, members of the Sunset View Campers Association noted the “lack of clear policy to determine which private roads merit the application of town resources resulting from taxation of all residents.”

Even more recently, resident David Cohen appealed to the town on behalf of the Spaldings West Shore Association, a group encompassing four private roads that are not plowed by the town.

“SWSA members pay taxes on an equitable basis with every other taxpayer in Colchester, but they are treated disparately with respect to town services,” Cohen wrote in a letter last December.

Cohen said the association has paid about $1,500 for contracted snowplowing over the past two years, adding, “this is not so much a cost issue for SWSA as it is a disparate treatment issue.”

A timeline of town involvement, short of adopting any official policy, has followed such public comments over the past half-century.

According to a history provided by town clerk Karen Richards, voters first approved the use of town plowing equipment to “be used where feasible” on private roads with two or more residences occupied during the winter 1970.

Six years later, the item was slightly altered when taxpayers approved using the same equipment on 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, revoking the policy of winter maintenance on all private roads.

Just months later, the selectboard was petitioned to “conduct a reconsideration of the question.” The town reversed course after a special vote held in May 1990.

In 1997, a voter-approved charter amendment granted the selectboard power to establish a winter maintenance policy, following a study in 1995.

The issue sat stagnant for another 20 years, until the citizen-run governance committee recommended a formalized policy in 2015, Scibek’s press release says.

Acknowledging this lengthy history, Monaghan said many view the town’s plowing policy as precedent, unable to be reversed. Still, he unequivocally stated the board — not voters — has the right to make this “difficult” decision.

“At the end of the day, this practice benefits property owners on private roads at the expense of property owners on public roads,” Monaghan wrote.

The selectboard will discuss the snow and ice removal operation practice at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 12 in the town offices’ Outer Bay Conference Room.

A list of private roads can be found at www.colchestervt.gov in the “popular links” section.