WINDHAM — “What I heard was a bunch of adults dealing with adult problems.”
That’s what Windham resident Mike Manning said when commending members of the Windham Town Council and Planning Board toward the end of last week’s workshop the controversial issue of private roads.
Manning said he was initially worried that the two boards would be discussing repeal of the ordinance changes passed in October with the aim of addressing safety and maintenance concerns, particularly when development is added to existing private roads.
Instead, the discussion focused more on ways to tweak the ordinance changes to give flexibility to individuals or families looking to build small projects without being held to the new requirements.
Chris Hanson, the town’s chief code enforcement officer, offered a suggestion to exempt anyone extending 200 feet or less on a private road from the new requirements, which he said would give relief to individuals or families looking to build one or two houses.
Hanson said his idea would “still have a tourniquet on most of the development on private roads, but you can allow somebody that has a one- or two-lot subdivision” to extend 200 feet every five years without having to improve the entire private road back to the public way.
Members of both the council and planning board expressed support for Hanson’s suggestion, which would still need to be drafted by town staff before coming back to the council as a formal proposal.
“I like your idea a lot,” said Councilor Jarrod Maxfield, who supported the ordinance changes in October. “That helps the folks that are just trying to do a small amount for themselves, and are not in for profit.”
“That’s low-hanging fruit, so to speak, and we should take advantage of that,” said Planning Board Bill Walker, who has expressed concerns about the impact of the ordinance changes.
“I just don’t want the other stuff to get lost in the mix,” said Walker, who seemed to think that more tweaks could be needed.
Proponents of the private road changes have said certain developers add large projects off existing private roads without improving or fixing damage done to the road in the construction process – a process they say has been unfair to existing residents on those private roads.
As a result, the changes passed in October stipulate that, among other things, 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.
Town Attorney Stephen Langsdorf acknowledged at the Nov. 21 workshop that the ordinance changes were sure to have impacts on development in town.
“Certainly we understood going into this that by adopting this type of a standard, it was obviously going to have what we say in the legal business a chilling effect on development,” said Langsdorf, who works at Portland-based law firm Preti Flaherty. “That wasn’t specifically the intention.”
Langsdorf also called the private roads changes “cold, hard medicine” and suggested there could be ways to “balance what people want to do in terms of reasonable development versus some of the problems that were causing the need for this in the first place.”
The council voted 4-2 in October to approve the ordinance changes after the Planning Board had deadlocked 2-2 when providing its recommendation on the proposal.
Councilors Donna Chapman and Robert Muir were the two dissenting council votes in October, and they have now become chairwoman and vice chairmen respectively after two new councilors were elected in November.
“I think this has been a hot button for us for a long time, and I’m hoping we can work through it,” Chapman said at the workshop last week, expressing her belief that the election results, which saw two sitting councilors lose, “showed that we probably didn’t do some things right.”
Chapman said Hanson’s proposal could help in “fixing the real hurt” that she sees as a result of the private roads ordinance changes.
Town Planning Director Ben Smith said the exemption proposed by Hanson would “probably not be that difficult a task” for town staff to work on and estimated that a specific proposal could be brought back to the council sometime in January.
For Manning, who said he was one of the people who “kind of helped get this whole can kicked over” because of development issues on his road, the discussion was an encouraging one.
“I want to say thank you to everybody today. This has been the most civil discussion that I have seen ever at any of these town council meetings,” Manning said. “This is what a town is supposed to do, we’re supposed identify a problem, come together, butt heads and argue like family, then come up with a solution and move forward together to get things done. So, we’re actually making a lot of progress.”
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.
Windham Director of Code Enforcement Chris Hanson suggested a possible exemption for the town’s new private road requirements.