A path to citizenship for the hard-working but undocumented roads of the Ridgefield Lakes area — acceptance under a “scenic roads” classification — is being discussed by the town and the neighborhood.
“We can accept them under the scenic road ordinance and put this to bed once and for all,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the selectmen recently.
Built in the 1920s and 30s when the area was developed with summer cottages, the Lakes roads were intended to seem rustic — narrow and, for many years, unpaved.
Most were never accepted by the town as public roads. Generally, new roads built as part of housing developments are accepted as town roads by a vote of the Board of Selectmen. Then they’re owned and maintained by the town rather than the developer who subdivided the neighborhood or the people who bought and live in the houses. But there are standards roads are supposed to meet to be accepted. Most Lakes roads don’t come close.
The town’s big concern about accepting the roads is that it would be required to spend a lot more money on them. Currently the Lakes roads aren’t part of the regular repaving schedule, but the highway department does plow them and do some patching, paving and other work. Town officials fear it would be very expensive to bring them up to official town road standards.
The solution Mr. Marconi is proposing is to accept the Lakes roads as official town roads, but in conjunction with residents’ going through the process to designate them as scenic roads, which are allowed to be narrower and more rustic. “I told the representatives of the neighborhood I’d bring it to the Board of Selectmen and have a discussion,” he said.
The ability to have scenic road status exists under state law and town ordinance. Mr. Marconi said that for a road to be designated as scenic, most of the people who live there must agree.
“The neighborhood would have to get a majority of residents of that road to accept it as a scenic road,” he said.
Mr. Marconi suggested to the selectmen that the town could have difficulty making a case that it shouldn’t be responsible for the Lakes roads.
Researching the question, Mr. Marconi said, he’d found meetings dating back to at least 1958 at which the roads, their maintenance and legal status, was discussed.
For years the town has plowed the Lakes roads in winter, so the more than 450 homes in the area can be reached by emergency vehicles. It also does some repairs, like pothole filling, some paving, and brush-clearing along the roadsides.
But the town never officially took ownership of most of Lakes roads, doesn’t have them on its regular paving schedule, and doesn’t do the kind of drainage work it often does on official town roads.
Two Lakes roads, Cross Hill and Crescent Drive, have long been on lists of town roads, and the highway department treats them that way, although Mr. Marconi said his research didn’t find a meeting where they’d been accepted.
The situation has gone on for years, with the Lakes roads getting some maintenance but not as much as official town roads. Then last fall, the school system and its bus contractor dropped some bus stops in the Lakes, saying the roads were private roads, weren’t up to standard and weren’t safe for buses.
The school board was besieged with protests. As a compromise, the highway department did some work along the roads, Mr. Marconi provided the school system with a letter clarifying their legal status — not really public, not really private — and bus service was restored.
Another complaint has been that while the police respond to serious crimes and emergencies in the Lakes, they have declined residents’ requests for speed enforcement there.
This, Mr. Marconi told the selectmen, prompts a standard objection: “I live here. I pay taxes. The police won’t respond,” Mr. Marconi said.
Now Lakes residents want to resolve the question.
Mr. Marconi told the selectmen he’d met with representatives of the neighborhood, and a lawyer they’re working with.
The scenic roads idea is a compromise that might work.
The “preservation objective” in the town’s scenic roads ordinance strikes a balance between maintaining road safety and not requiring that country roads be made into city streets: “The Town shall maintain its scenic roads in good and sufficient repair and in passable condition, pursuant to its regular schedule for maintenance of Town roads,” it says.
“Routine maintenance and alterations and reconstruction of a scenic road shall be carried out so as to preserve to the highest degree possible its scenic and rural characteristics, compatible with safe road operations.”
The ordinance authorizes both “emergency repairs” and “routine maintenance, repairs and alterations.”
The work specified ranges from “trimming of trees, grass cutting and removal of brush and other material which either encroaches upon the traveled portion of the road or obstructs the sight lines” to “correction of road drainage problems and maintenance of existing drainage structures.”
Mr. Marconi said Town Attorney Dave Grogins’ research showed there was some potential under state law for residents to bring actions against a town, requiring that public roads be maintained up to a certain standard. The Lakes roads, with their complicated ownership status, appear to be in a gray area.
“Until they’re our roads, we can’t be forced to improve them,” Mr. Grogins said.
“The only thing is, somebody could come in and say they’re de facto public roads.”
“I don’t know what kind of a defense we’d have, when we say we’ve paved them for 60 years,” Mr. Marconi said.
“I’d just like get a handle on the budget,” said Selectman Andy Bodner.
Mr. Marconi said the idea of giving the roads scenic status is to avoid the cost of a major upgrade. “We’ll just put them into the normal paving schedule,” he said.
Mr. Bodner also worried that by accepting the roads as public, the town might be confiscating property.
“That’s a taking,” he said.
Mr. Marconi and Mr. Grogins said the Lakes roads aren’t like most other private roads in town, where the land under the road is actually owned by the houses on either side with the deed lines meeting in the center of the roadway. They’re more like the old town roads that date way back — the deeds of the houses go only up to the edge of the traveled way.
“Most of the roads in town are not owned by anybody. They’re rights-of-way,” Mr. Grogins said. “If you accept the roads like this, without a deed, you’re accepting rights-of-way.”