Residents stayed at the Colchester town offices late into to the evening on Tuesday, Oct. 10 to hear the selectboard’s decision on the long-debated private road plowing policy. The board unanimously agreed to stop plowing private roads in 2018. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

The Colchester Selectboard has unanimously agreed to stop plowing all private roads in town by winter 2018, effectively closing the book on a fervent debate nearly 50 years in the making.

The decision, announced late into the evening at the Oct. 10 board meeting, came after two well-attended public hearings and dozens of logged phone calls, letters, emails and in-person visits to the town offices.

Selectboard chairwoman Nadine Scibek told the crowd gathered last Tuesday that the current board’s involvement in the issue started well before the popular public forums, however, through interactions with town staffers and the town’s attorney.

“We finally decided that it was time to bring this issue out into the public and make a decision on it,” Scibek said.

Since 1970, Colchester has provided snow and ice removal to just 15 of the town’s 44 miles of private road, according to updated calculations provided in a memo from town manager Dawn Francis and public works director Bryan Osborne.

Town attorney Brian Monaghan recently recommended the town forego the maintenance of private roads altogether, citing liability concerns, cost and fairness. The board announced it would take up the controversial measure this summer.

Board members said they would either continue the current policy, stop plowing all private roads, provide the service to all or entertain alternate solutions proposed by residents.

At the recent meeting, town staff addressed many of those proposals in detail, including lowering tax rates for private road dwellers, reducing the road mileage in question by eliminating properties like St. Michael’s College and Camp Johnson and forming some type of public/private partnership.

In each case, the town said the proposals could not adequately address the many facets of this complicated case. Asked if he had considered forming a citizen task force, Osborne said no.

Several attendees took umbrage with that answer. Buzz Hoerr said past task forces have successfully come up with better alternatives when hot-button topics were on the table and cited clear interest in its formation during the public forums.

“I was hoping the selectboard and the staff would work on the side of trying to work something out, but instead it seems that it’s just ‘No, I didn’t consider it, and we’re moving on,’” Hoerr said. “[I’m] just disappointed.”

Attendees went on to echo several testimonials delivered at earlier forums before board members took the floor, especially emphasizing safety and fairness.

Selectboard member Jacki Murphy, new to the board this year, said she pored over the documents residents submitted and lost sleep over the issue. She refuted the need for a task force, saying the board itself functioned in that role.

Appearing via phone call, selectman Tom Mulcahy was clear in calling for an end to the plowing of private roads, saying he was especially bothered by commercial entities making a profit off the town’s service.

Selectman Herb Downing complimented the speakers for the “high tenor” of dialogue and ideas, noting the extraordinary public interest in the topic prompted officials to take an even deeper dive into the discussion.

“The other horrible thing, from my perspective, is that it’s not your fault. This board should have faced up to this problem, not now, but it should have faced up to it 35 or 40 years ago,” Downing said, calling himself a “stickler” who wanted to address the predicament this year.

Indeed, in a Sun candidate Q&A back in February, Downing said plowing private roads was the town’s biggest challenge, dubbing the current practice “unfair and not right.”

In that same line, selectman Jeff Bartley said he first considered the plowing policy a straightforward “black and white issue,” after reading opinions from the staff and town attorney.

The board plans to adopt a formal plow policy at the next meeting on October 24. (Courtesy photo/Town of Colchester)

“That being said, the level of decorum, the respect, the comments we received from all of you guys made it very much not a black and white issue,” Bartley said.

All board members said residents of currently plowed private roads should be given one more year of town plowing and offered to help them find contractors.

A town-provided FAQ form said Colchester would save $20,000 per year if all private plowing stopped. Adding the remaining mileage would create a far loftier price tag because two more plow trucks and drivers would be required, Francis said at the first forum in September.

“We’re not just going to leave you hanging,” Scibek said. “We’ve been dealing with this for 47 years; we’re not just going to walk away.”

The board plans to adopt a formal policy at the next meeting on October 24.