Green light for private roads exemption in Windham

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WINDHAM — The Town Council has signed off on an exemption that rolls back a piece – but not all – of the new private road standards passed last fall. 

“This was not, and I don’t want anybody to think this is a silver bullet to fixing our private roads. It’s not,” said Windham’s Director of Code Enforcement Chris Hanson, who first came up with the idea for the exemption. “And I can’t give you a quantifiable number of how many people it will affect, but I can tell you it will affect quite a number of people.” 

“It won’t help everyone. No matter where you draw a line, there’s always going to be people on the other side of it,” added Town Planning Director Ben Smith. Town Manager Tony Plante noted earlier in the meeting that Smith leaving his role to pursue work in consulting. 

In October 2017a divided council ultimately signed off on ordinance changes that supporters hope will reign in runaway development off of private roads, which they say have caused damage to roads at the expense of the people already living on them. 

Those ordinance changes included a requirement that when development extends an existing private road or creates a new private road that is accessed off an existing private road, all of the private roads between that development and the nearest public street must conform to a town private road standard – meaning private road networks might need to be paved, widened or otherwise upgraded when development is added.

Since the measure was passed, the council has heard concerns about the new standards from some private road residents and property owners looking to build homes or gift or sell land – and had discussions with Hanson and other town staff about how to lessen some of the impact on smaller scale development. 

The Council voted 6-1 last Tuesday, with Councilor Clayton Haskell the only dissenting vote, to approve the exemption to those new standards that will allow the development of one or two lots on a private road, via a maximum extension of up to 200 feet of road, every five years without triggering the requirement to upgrade the rest of the road.

“I’ve had a huge number of people come into the office looking to do something like build a house and gift a lot to their son or their daughter, and they can’t do it because they’re missing 50 feet or 25 feet [of required road frontage],” Hanson said. “This would help those people.” 

When the Council voted 4-2 last fall to approve the private road standards, current Council Chairwoman Donna Chapman and current Vice Chairman Robert Muir were the two no votes. Both voted for the exemption last Tuesday night. 

“I don’t like what we did, because I knew it would probably impact a lot of people, but I am trying to be patient,” Chapman said. 

“I’m going to support this until we get a task force up and running … ” she added. 

When the Planning Board signed off on the exemption, it also recommended the creation of a task force to look more at the private road ordinance. 

Councilor Jarrod Maxfield, who supported the private road requirements last fall and noted that the town has been grappling with private road issues long before his time on the council, offered somewhat tentative support for both the exemption and the creation of a private roads task force. 

“To be perfectly honest, I will vote for this – I’m not super happy with it,” Maxfield said about the exemption. “I would also support the task force to look into these things, but I do think that a lot of the questions that we have gone through, other folks will go through again, and unfortunately you’re going to come to some of the similar conclusions.”

Michael Manning lives on a private road near Forest Lake and has said previously that he helped jumpstart the new private road requirement discussion because of frustrations about the impact of development on his road. 

“In the span of just over a week, our roads were really beat up bad because of a warming spell and the construction that was going on,” said Manning, who emphasized that he wasn’t against providing exemptions for people trying to gift lots or sell land to support their retirement, but said that developers need to be held accountable for the impact of construction on private roads. 

“I don’t want to stop development, I want responsible development,” Manning said. 

Julie Lunt-Farley came before the Council in February with frustrations about the impact about the new private road standards on her family’s land, and said the exemption wouldn’t help her situation.

She also agreed with Manning this week that the town should be holding people accountable for impact on private roads, and supported the idea of forming a private roads task force. 

Councilor Timothy Nangle, who supported the requirements last fall and also voted for the exemption last week, said that the town has few options when it comes to private roads enforcement. 

“I don’t like it any more than you do, which is one of the reasons that I’ve been pushing for this – is the developer who comes in and builds a road and continues to beat it up during the construction, and the residents end up holding the bag,” Nangle said. 

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

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