Kevin Brooks deliberately drove past his house on Niquette Bay Road on a brisk afternoon last week, gravel softly pinging as it hit the side of his pickup truck. Moments later, he made an easy turn around his mother-in-law’s expansive driveway.
Brooks’ family has cleared that flat area for the town’s plow trucks every winter, allowing the operators to safely perform a three-point maneuver before heading back up the private, mile-long road.
By the end of this year, however, those rumbling vehicles will be markedly absent from the lakeside route.
“It’s like getting a de facto eviction notice,” Brooks said, tears pricking his eyes. “Without a means to access our homes in or out, well, what home do we have?”
Niquette Bay is among the 15 miles of private road Colchester will stop plowing next winter for the first time in at least half a century. The selectboard made the unanimous decision to halt the service last October after a series of fiery public hearings, citing legal liability and fairness concerns.
Ralph Perkins calls that saga “Chapter One.”
“We’re in Chapter Two of this story,” Perkins said in an interview earlier this week. “In Chapter Two, it’s not about walking away. It’s about solving the problem.”
Perkins and a small group of residents banded together shortly after the board announced its decision, aiming to continue the dialogue started in the public hearings.
The group sent letters to everyone affected by the decision — about 700 in total — asking if they want to be involved in further discussion. Perkins said about 10 declined. More than 200 responded in earnest.
Earlier this month, the group took out an ad in the Sun heralding the formation of a citizens’ taskforce. The posting solicited general advice and relevant expertise, resolving to “find some solutions that might help these families.”
Selectboard members briefly addressed the budding taskforce at their last meeting, all agreeing to provide any useful information, like shared maintenance agreements, to the project leaders.
Remarkably, Perkins himself lives on the public stretch of Braeloch Road unaffected by the policy change. Nonetheless, he believes the issue is community-wide.
Perkins said 60 percent of the families impacted by the selectboard’s decision to discontinue private plowing are low or very low income. That’s based on the town’s estimated number of households in mobile home parks and a state estimate of the average financial incomes for mobile home park residents, he said.
“The group of people that this is landing squarely on the shoulders of are the Colchester residents that can least afford it and the residents that don’t have the time or the availability to stand up and speak about this,” Perkins said. “I see the potential for people being forced out of Colchester quietly and silently.”
Niquette Bay Road is not governed by a road association, meaning no formal structure exists to collect fees or vote on major issues facing its inhabitants, Brooks said. That’s already proven problematic, he noted, especially because just few of the residents live on the road year round.
Brooks said his road, along with many others on the 15 mile list, is simply too wide and rolling to be effectively cleared by a plow blade strapped to the front of a civilian truck. But private contractors have already expressed an unwillingness to take on the project next winter.
“The only thing that I can think of is that there’s going to be a mass exodus of people out of Colchester,” Brooks said. “They basically dumped us out in the cold. I don’t think they realize the consequences of what they’ve done.”
The same has proven true for people on the private Braeloch Road East. That road association has already been turned down by five different plowing contractors, according to resident Elizabeth Whittemore.
Buzz Hoerr, president of the 29-home association on Broadlake Road, has run into the same problem. He was one of the most ardent supporters of a taskforce during last year’s public hearings, imploring the town officials to consider forming a citizen panel before making a decision.
Now, he’s heard “no” from two lawyers and learned a contractual provider will need to be agreed upon and paid upfront before next winter. But because some of his neighbors are seasonal residents, Hoerr knows he needs to have options prepared for a vote by this summer.
“I know people that are on Social Security, and we’re always conscious of that,” Hoerr said. “It’s not a snapshot of a bunch of rich people in a gated community.”
Hoerr, Perkins and Brooks each independently expressed fear that folks won’t have a safe or reliable plan in place by the time the first snowflakes fall. Still, the trio was optimistic a meeting of the minds could bring invaluable results.
“We’re not trying to lump everyone together and come up with a simple solution,” Perkins said. “But the model needed to solve this can be bigger than one family.”
Residents interested in joining the plowing taskforce can email firstname.lastname@example.org.