WINDHAM — Private roads have a way of winding into the discussion at the Windham Town Council, even when they aren’t on the agenda.
The council meeting Tuesday night began with several residents speaking during the public comment portion of the agenda to express their frustration with the private road ordinance changes that the previous Council made last fall in an attempt to address safety and maintenance concerns, particularly when subdivision development is added to existing private roads.
Julie Lunt-Farley said that the ordinance changes have affected the value of her family property off of Land of Nod Road, which originally belonged to her grandfather.
Lunt-Farley said that she and her husband purchased the land from her grandmother, and eventually put in a private road that now has four houses on it. A large parcel remains undeveloped, and she says the new private road requirements have drained its property value while she continues to pay taxes on it.
“With the ordinance that was passed about a year ago, that pretty much makes it literally impossible for us to access that land,” Lunt-Farley said, calling the upgrades that would be required to extend the road under the new ordinance language “completely cost prohibitive.”
“Now I’m carrying land that is literally worthless,” she said about the undeveloped property.
“I’m not here to tell you that I want to make roads unsafe,” she added, but called the private road requirements a “knee-jerk reaction to some safety issues.”
George Varney, who said he also owns land off of a private road in town, agreed with Lunt-Farley and said her comments “pretty much sums up the same thing I wanted to say.”
“It’s really not worth much now with that ordinance that you guys passed,” Varney said about his land. “Can’t really do much with it.”
The private road changes passed last fall 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.
Several other members of the public appeared ready to speak on the issue, or at least listen to the discussion but left before the Council came out of an executive session held immediately before the regular meeting.
That long executive session began at 6 p.m. and stretched until after 8, meaning the regular meeting started a full hour later than anticipated.
Both Farley and Varney also spoke the night before at a Planning Board meeting, where the Board was considering an exemption to the new private roads requirements that would allow for the development of one or two lots on a private road without triggering the requirement to upgrade the rest of the road.
The idea for the exemption was first suggested by the town’s chief code enforcement officer Chris Hanson.
The Council had expressed interest in Hanson’s idea, which was put onto paper by town planning staff and eventually sent to the Planning Board for its review and recommendation.
Several residents with frustrations about the new private road requirements, including Lunt-Farley and Varney, told the Planning Board Monday night that the exemption wouldn’t help their situation.
The Planning Board voted 5-0 to favorably recommend the exemption, as well as to recommend the creation a task force to look more at the private road ordinance and create a committee to evaluate subdivisions in the town.
Councilor Timothy Nangle was the first to respond to Lunt-Farley and Varney’s comments Tuesday night when they spoke before the Town Council. He was one of the four councilors that supported the private road ordinance changes last fall.
“I hear you, but I also hear all of the other constituents that have contacted me that live on nightmarish private roads,” Nangle said. “I will say that we’ve taken the time and energy to look at this issue, and I think it’s still a work in progress.”
Nangle said the Council looked at the private roads issue for some time before taking action and noted that it is considering how to soften its impact. He called the proposed exemption “a reasonable option to begin with” and indicated there could be more work to do.
“We discussed this for over a year, we looked at every option that was available to us in order to – I’m not going to use the phrase stop the bleeding, but to stem the tide of private roads that were substandard to what they were expected to handle,” Nangle said about the private roads ordinance changes. “I mean, we must have met on this every two months … I think we all agreed that it was a very severe action that we took in order to stem that tide, and we’ve talked about walking it back.”
Current Council Vice Chairman Robert Muir, who voted against the new private road standards last year along with current Council Chairwoman Donna Chapman, said he thinks the entire private road changes should be reviewed.
Muir noted that the goal of the proposed exemption “was to help some people, I guess it did help some people, that’s why the Planning Board is recommending that we do it, but I think we do need to definitely look at that whole ordinance.”
Councilor Dennis Welch, who was Chairman at the time that the private road ordinance changes were made, also said that “we need to start looking at this and scale this back.”
Town Manager Tony Plante said that the proposed exemption could come back to the council sometime in March, though the schedule has not been finalized.
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.
Julie Lunt-Farley speaks to the Windham Town Council about her frustrations with the town’s new private road requirements.