Would 'scenic' make Lakes roads acceptable?

If residents vote to designate them 'scenic roads,' the 'private' ways at Ridgefield Lakes could become town roads.

Crescent Drive, which runs along Rainbow Lake, is one of two roads in Ridgefield Lakes that has long been treated as a town road, though town officials aren’t sure why. The Lakes area, with its narrow roads, was built as a summer community in the 1920s and 30s. —Macklin Reid photo

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.”

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  • rdg-oldtimer

    Mixed emotions—–If I lived in the area, I would want whatever I could get the town to pay for. On the other hand, when purchasing a home, I ask if the road is town or private, shared driveway, shared or community well, airport, etc.

  • Secondhand Rose

    Hey Z, I **TOLD** you these were town roads and that we got plowed in the winter. So there.

  • CMcQuilken

    This could turn into a real mess and be unfair to many Ridgefielders. As I see it, there are two problems.

    1) The Lake residents want public roads with storm drains and paving and plowing. Okay. I get it. I’d want that too if I lived there. Residents deserve to have real roads. But when those houses were first constructed, the builder didn’t put in the money to create roads that were up to the public standard. This means the original home buyers were able to pay less for the homes. In theory, those saving have been handed down to subsequent buyers in that the residents there today should have paid less to buy their home compared to a similar home in a different neighborhood with a “real” road. This leads to the second problem.

    2) Why should all of Ridgefield pay to have the Lake roads upgraded? We didn’t get to buy the cheaper homes. We bought our homes in developments where the builders spent the money to put in real roads. And we paid for that in our original purchase price. It would be unfair to have the rest of now also pay to upgrade the Lake roads.

    A suggested solution. Nothing against the Lake road residents. They need a real road. But once they get it, their homes should be more valuable because their neighborhood will officially be getting more town services. Therefore, their tax assessment should go up.

    How much? Exactly by the amount necessary to cover the cost to upgrade their roads.

    For example, if there are 450 Lake homes and if, say, the cost to upgrade and maintain those roads every year is $450k, then each house in that neighborhood should pay an extra $1,000 per year in taxes.

    That’s fair.

    What wouldn’t be fair is that the people who bought those less expensive homes get handed better roads for free, and the rest of us have to pay for it.

  • rdg-oldtimer

    CMcQ—How about tossing your hat in the ring at election time?

  • RPOZ28

    “Until they’re our roads, we can’t be forced to improve them,” Mr. Grogins said.

    Now ROSE tell the town ATTORNEY he is WRONG on his assessment that those roads are town roads. THEY ARE NOT AND NEVER WILL BE as they are not COMPLIANT IN ANY SHAPE OR FORM. And i truely hope they make them compliant as it will destroy the area. Once again the Residents will screw it up for themselves as usual!!!

  • Secondhand Rose

    Hey Z — Most of us aren’t interested in bringing the roads up to compliance. All we want are the paved roads to continue to be paved, and the potholes WELL filled (not the slapdash shovelful of gravel that they usually get, when someone from the town can be bothered.)

    As for plowing, the town has been plowing these roads all along, and we are fine with that.

    All we’re asking for is to maintain the status quo. We don’t need the roads rebuilt, just kept as they are and well maintained like any other road in Ridgefield. That shouldn’t cost ANYBODY any more money, since half of it has been done all along to begin with.

  • Once we own the roads — under ANY definition — the slippery slope will just get slippery(ier). The road budget, police hours & other costs WILL increase. Ultimately it will cost Ridgefield taxpayers more.

    Chris McQuilken for 1st Selectman. 2nd_hand Rose for comptroller. RPOz28 for BoF.

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