Private Roads

Bill’s been writing quite a bit about private roads, as has Nick K.

I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, and I think I will write my recommendations for what needs to be done, as I actually live on a private road and have a sense of the reasons why folks willingly choose to live on private roads and why they choose to keep them as private roads.

First of all, the city needs to get its own house in order.  Private street residents travel down public streets every day.  We see the potholes and issues on the streets that are currently maintained by the city.  Many folks would rather take chances with maintaining their streets themselves rather than spend money for a street that might be on a pothole repair list for years.

I hope the city’s program for major street and sidewalk repairs will address some of these concerns, but if you need a special program to tackle the backlog, that still doesn’t make private street residents confident about long-term maintenance.

Second, there should be a moratorium on construction on private roads until there is actually a cohesive plan.  Funnily enough, Bill built a house on a private road, Weden Lane, less than two years ago.  Did you know that anyone who builds on a private road doesn’t need to make the road look the way it was before they built on it?  Now, I’m not saying that Bill did or didn’t do that, but residents of private roads are at the mercy of developers when it comes to the condition of their roads.  There is no recourse (beyond some pressure the city could apply, but not really enforce) if the road is affected by construction.

In addition, construction affects residents of private roads because there’s more traffic — first from the construction vehicles, and later from the additional residents.  And the increase in property taxes from that new development is received by the city — and none of that additional tax is used to improve the road the house was built on.

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this issue than most, but — as I previously mentioned — developers have gotten their hands on nearly every empty lot on my street and put in duplexes and single-family homes, each of which has a minimum of two cars.  The city is likely receiving thousands more from each lot than it otherwise would.  Again, none of that is going towards repairs the street might need as a result.

Third, anyone involved in planning needs to read Private Street Dangerous: Common Property Regimes on Private, Segmented Streets in Worcester, Massachusetts by Ethan Mitchell.  Some people read a book like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and come away thinking that the author accurately captured their lives; Ethan Mitchell is my Betty Smith.

Fourth, the city needs to address the non-financial concerns of residents.  There are many folks who would not want their private road made public even if the city footed the bill.  Why?  Because they do not want their road to be used for anything but local traffic.

Many of the streets near mine are private.  The reason why Gates Lane is a dirt road on its Mill Street side is so that it can’t be used as a shortcut.  If that — or some of the other roads near it — were made public (and driveable), it would quickly become the shortcut between Main and Mill, and the character of the neighborhood would change.

Now, this isn’t a concern for residents of all private roads, but this is one way that residents can do an end-run around through traffic.  Many folks do not feel that they could ever get the “No left turn between 7am and 9am” signs you see on many side roads of Salisbury Street, but a private road serves much the same purpose.

Fifth, the city needs to commit to having no more private roads and no more public roads that are only accessible via a private road.  There was a cul-de-sac recently constructed off of my street.  It was made public, but the only way to access it is via our private street.  This is not fair to the residents of the public street, and it’s not fair to those on the private street who have to contribute to the upkeep of the private street.

Sixth, the city needs to publicly acknowledge why there are private streets and how streets were made public way back when.  The answer to the former is greed, plain and simple: the city wanted additional tax revenue and didn’t want to burden others (or, rather, be burdened) with the cost of having a public street.  This was an inherently unfair and unsustainable situation.  Residents of private roads deserve to be told this, and residents of public roads especially need to understand that those on private roads do not get a break on their taxes.

Seventh, we need to have a plan for which streets should be addressed first, and what the consequences are if those streets are not addressed.  Now, that might be as simple as contacting residents of the 10 worst streets, and letting them know that if they do not do a betterment or a conversion in three years’ time, that the opportunity will not be made to them for 10 or 15 years in the future.  But a list would be helpful.

Last, we need clear guidelines on when a public street conversion absolutely needs to be done over any resident concerns.  The cases recently mentioned involved houses that were severely impacted by deteriorated road conditions.  We need to know which cases might trump the other abutters.

A few years back, State Rep Cleon Turner had proposed two bills which would have addressed some of the issues surrounding private roads statewide.  That those bills went nowhere is, I think, indicative of how difficult  a subject this is.  No one wants to pay for these roads to be updated, and many of us aren’t willing to discuss all of the issues (financial, traffic, quality-of-life) that go hand-in-hand with living on a private road.

Though the situations on Stark Road and Pineland Avenue have the potential to open up these kinds of conversations, I have little confidence that this will be anything but a temporary blip on the radar.  Meanwhile, we’ll still have loads of private road residents who won’t know what the criteria their streets will be evaluated on for a public street conversion, who really don’t understand why the city doesn’t fill in their potholes, and we’ll continue to have situations like this until we’re ready to address this topic with the respect and thoughtfulness it deserves.