Guest column: Windham's private road solutions penalize some property owners

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Safety issues concern the ability for fire trucks and ambulances to travel on many existing private roads during winter and “mud season.” As 48 percent of the homeowners in Windham live on private roads, this townwide safety issue directly concerns many.

The safety issue slowly developed over time. State law allows a property owner to sell off one lot every five years without going through expensive subdivision processes. Landowners living on the property can divide two lots every five years. These laws have been successful in reasonably slowing but not stopping development, so road upgrading can keep pace.

State laws also allow the selling or giving of land to relatives or abutting property owners with the understanding that the original transferee must own the property for at least five years before any sale. Abuse of these regulations has occurred, when lots given to relatives were quickly developed and then sold.

Windham’s existing private road regulations require that any new private road or the extension of any existing private road be built to various Windham private road standards, depending on the amount of new lots/homes to be served. This has been accepted and relatively uncontested for many years.

After years of discussion, the Windham Planning Board developed proposals to address the safety of existing private roads. The board initially proposed changes to require that in addition subdivision roads, existing private roads leading to the subdivision from a public road would also have to be upgraded to the new private road standards. Considerable costs would be added to subdivision lots, but it would partially address the safety issue (for new lots) and costs could be shared with all lots in a subdivision.

However, when Planning Board changes were passed on to the Windham Town Council, the council proposed additional requirements that would severely affect many private road property owners. In addition to subdivisions, anyone selling a single back lot would be required to upgrade all of the existing road(s) as well. Such costs for individual lots would be prohibitive and any potential “backland” lots would thus become worthless.

Is this fair? Many rural property owners have invested in additional adjacent land or oversized lots as a “retirement fund” to be sold off if funds were needed in the future. Farmers also similarly benefit from currently permitted use of their property. Passing the council’s modified road proposal would thus take away the value of the retirement funds of many Windham residents.

Also, should existing homeowners on private roads benefit from improved roads without contributing to any improvement? Should the Town Council impose a rule making a single-lot seller pay for benefiting 70-plus other property owners?

The proposal also has other problems:

1) No Windham-wide upgrading of private roads would be encouraged.

2) Existing private roads without subdivision potential would remain unsafe forever.

3) Dead end roads near waterfront would never be addressed.

4) Improved roads leads to unaddressed speeding issues, over which Windham Police currently have no jurisdiction.

Are there better solutions with more immediate and long-term benefits?

1) Keep the proposed requirement for subdivision road improvements.

2) Make current and potential plowing and sanding of private roads contingent upon meeting private road standards.

3) Banks are open to lending for such road improvements and Windham should encourage that.

4) Remove single back lot investments from any road upgrading requirements.

Is more thought on this issue warranted, before any final decisions?

The next Windham Planning Board meeting is at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 28, at Town Hall and the meeting is specifically to take public comments on new proposed road ordinances.

Thomas Peterson is a resident of Windham and a design builder doing business as Solar Design & Construction.