By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Since 2017, IAC has been following the status of legal disputes over road maintenance in several Long Island communities in the town of Riverhead. Many of the older homes in the town were originally designed with private roads.
As more people moved to Long Island, driving from one part of town to another became difficult, especially in the winter. To make sure roads were safe and passable, at least two decades ago, the Town of Riverhead started plowing snow on private roads, and making emergency pothole repairs.
Residents of Riverhead ran into roadblocks (pardon the pun) when its Highway Superintendent, George Woodson, notified residents in 2014, that his department would no longer provide snow removal on private roads.
That prompted angry members of Oak Hills Civic Association to protest at a Town meeting.
In response, Riverhead’s Town Council amended Chapter 92, pertaining to highway, streets and sidewalks, at their December 2014 meeting. It states, in part:
…if determined by the Town Board to be necessary, said improvements shall be performed in accordance with the provisions of law. Nothing herein shall require the Town to pave or otherwise improve the existing surface of the 189 Highway to any level beyond keeping it open in order to allow safe passage and emergency service access.
Note the reference to “189 Highway.” That’s significant.
New York Statute, Section 189 allows municipalities to transition a private road to a public road, if the road can be designated as a “highway by use.” But there’s one catch. To be designated as a “highway by use,” the Town board of Riverhead would have had to authorize maintenance services — such as snow plowing and pothole patching — for at least 10 years.
Section 189 Highways by use
All lands which shall have been used by the public as a highway for the period of ten years or more, shall be a highway, with the same force and effect as if it had been duly laid out and recorded as a highway, and the town superintendent shall open all such highways to the width of at least three rods.
Riverhead Town Council’s 2014 resolution stopped short of designating Oak Hills’ 12 private roads as 189 Highways. It only authorized Woodson’s Department to remove snow and do emergency road patching.
But Oak Hills residents argued their roads qualified as 189 Highways, and, therefore, the Highway Department should provide full maintenance services, to include paving and drainage improvements.
Inventory of roads in Riverhead
On August 4, 2015, the Town of Riverhead town council adopted Resolution #585, incorporating roads that qualified as 189 Highways.
Resolution #585 states, in part:
…pursuant to Town Code Chapter 92, as amended, the Highway Superintendent shall not be required to pave, to open up these Town of Riverhead 189 Highways to three (3) rods in width, install drainage or otherwise improve the existing surface of the Town of Riverhead § 189 Highway to any level beyond keeping it open in order to allow safe passage and emergency service access; and be it further
RESOLVED, that pursuant to Town Code Chapter 92, that all signs stating “Private Road”, “Private Community” or like be removed;…
In the document window below, see pages 55-58 for the full resolution and the list of 34 roads included for partial maintenance.
Oak Hills Lawsuit
Oak Hills hopes to compel public maintenance of its roads. The Association argues that its property owners pay taxes, just like all other homeowners in Riverhead, and they should be entitled to the same level of service.
Full service road maintenance of public roads includes “drain vacuuming, maintaining lighting and water lines, cleaning of tree, leaf, branch and storm debris, roadway patching, etc.”
Then in September 2017, Riverhead Town Council passed a resolution designating twelve private roads in Oak Hills as 189 Highways. That makes the roads “public” and entitles residents to full maintenance services.
Woodson then threatened to sue Riverhead Town Council for passing a resolution incorporating Oak Hills’ private roads as public roads. The Highway Supervisor says that Oak Hills’ roads don’t qualify as 189 Highways, because they aren’t “through ways” and they have not been consistently maintained by the Town for ten years.
Oak Hills’ 2016 lawsuit is still pending, but in January of this year, a judge finally ordered Woodson to plow snow on roads in the 85-home Oak Hills neighborhood.
Highway Department avoids maintaining private roads in Riverhead
As Oak Hills litigation drags on into its third year, several other homeowners in Riverhead recently contacted me.
They also say that Woodson stopped maintaining their roads years ago, in 2010 or 2011. Now those roads are in bad shape, even unsafe.
Resolution #585, approved by Town Council in 2015, enables Woodson to discontinue all “non-emergency” road services on private roads, unless otherwise ordered by the court.
But, looking at the history of the private road controversy, it appears that George Woodson also wants to avoid designating more of Riverhead’s private roads as public roads under Section 189.
By stopping all public road services, the ten-year maintenance clock stops ticking, preventing a “highway by use” designation.
Riverhead ends public maintenance
Chad A. Haverty and his wife, Cyndi, purchased their home at 3 Red Fox Path, in 2009.
Chad describes serious problems on Red Fox Path, a road which is included on the council-approved 189 Highway list as of 2015. “The road is graded incorrectly down towards the cul-de-sac instead of the main road.”
Chad told me that, since Riverhead stopped maintaining the roads, all three storm drains would perpetually overflow. Every time it rained the entire turn around area would fill with water and then proceed up his driveway, lapping at his garage door.
Across the street from the Havertys, at 2 Red Fox Path, Rob Schepis also deals with the flooding and erosion at the end of the cul-de-sac, where residents of both homes have to enter and exit their driveways on a daily basis.
The two neighbors recently took measures to alleviate flooding.
Homeowners foot the bill to improve poor storm water drainage
In January of this year, frustrated by repeated flooding of their properties, Chad and Rob decided to pay a contractor to clean out the storm drains, and install a new concrete drywell to capture excess storm water. The new drywell connects to the existing drainage system on Red Fox Path.
The Haverty and Schepis families split the cost $3,500. Here’s a photo of the drywell, as it was being installed.
Flooding, erosion, and a crater-sized hole
Over the years, the history of poor drainage Chad describes eroded the turn around area of Red Fox Path. A 20-foot wide and 12 inch deep crater fills with water every time it rains.
Here’s what it looks like today.
Here’s another photo of erosion surrounding a nearby storm grate installed in 1975. Note the severe erosion, caused by storm water backing up into the road.
Only five homes occupy Red Fox Path.
As is the case with dozens of other private roads in Riverhead, a homeowners’ association was never established to fund or manage road maintenance. So homeowners rely on public maintenance to keep their roads safe and passable.
From this Google satellite image, we can see that Red Fox Path and several other roads intersect with a public road — Wading River Manor Road. Homeowners tell me that storm water travels downstream toward the end of the Red Fox Path cul-de-sac, and then flows toward the Deep Pond conservation area.
History of public maintenance on Red Fox Path
Although Red Fox Path is still considered a private road, Rob explained that the Town of Riverhead regularly maintained the road when he moved into his home in 1999. “I moved in in 1999 and we were being plowed, swept and patched at that time,” says Rob.
The Town maintained Red Fox Path and other private roads continuously through 2009, the year Chad purchased his home. But services ended abruptly within a year or two.
According to Chad and Rob, the condition of the road worsened when Riverhead’s Highway Department stopped clearing snow, unclogging catch basins and storm drains, and filling in potholes.
As Rob explains, “the flooding and failing road condition only became a problem when the town decided to walk away from Red Fox Path. It’s the town’s wrongful lack of services & maintenance that has allowed the road to gradually worsen and become the disaster that it is today.“
Chad tells me that he and his neighbors have asked the Town of Riverhead for assistance with their drainage problems and road repair many times over the years. But their pleas continue to fall on deaf ears, and Highway Supervisor Woodson refuses to help.
“I do have Congressman Lee Zeldin in my corner,” says Chad. “One of his representatives, William Doyle, has reached out to the town on our behalf numerous times, but he has no authority over them. I’ve sent letters to every possible New York politician right up to Governor Cuomo.”
“Unsafe road conditions”
The drywell helps to alleviate flooding, but Red Fox Path is still in rough condition.
With a rainy spring season on Long Island, Chad and Rob must navigate the large mud filled crater in the turn around where the asphalt has eroded away.
The poor condition of Red Fox Path gained the attention of the local Postmaster. On April 18, Chad received a letter from Greg Catalano, threatening to stop mail delivery:
The approach to your box has also been unsafe to drive on, or even walk up to. Please be advised that, if the approach to your mail box approach in the street is not made safe within the next two weeks, we will be forced to suspend delivery of your mail until the unsafe conditions are corrected.
No help offered by Town of Riverhead
In January, Chad met in front of his home with Trustee Catherine Kent and Highway Supervisor Woodson. All agreed that Red Fox Path is in need of repair, but the Town holds firm on their position that it’s up to the homeowners to fix their road paving and drainage problems.
In a a recent letter from Haverty to Honorable Laura Jens-Smith, Town of Riverhead Supervisor, Woodson, and Trustee Catherine Kent, Chad wrote:
During that meeting Mr. Woodson offered zero assistance and took no responsibility. Mr. Woodson is currently being personally sued by the Oak Hills community of Riverhead. Therefore, I understand his reluctance to help us. I’m sure he has been advised not to set a precedent. This isn’t fair to the residents of Red Fox Path. Lawsuit litigation can take years. Why should we have to wait for the town to carry out it’s responsibilities?
We are just like every other taxpayer in Riverhead. The people have full access to our road. There are no gates or signs prohibiting anyone from coming and going as they wish. The residents of Red Fox Path pay the same property tax percentage as everyone else. We don’t get a rebate or discount for the lack of services.
Chad attached a copy of the letter from the Postmaster, and the receipt for the recently-installed drywell.
So far, Jens-Smith has not replied to the letter.
Homeowners in the Town of Riverhead anxiously await the outcome of the Oak Hills Civic Association lawsuits. They hope that the courts will recognize that private homeowners cannot be expected to take on unfunded private maintenance of their neighborhood roads. ♦