By Christine Legere, Globe Correspondent | November 7, 2010
When the snow falls this winter, clearing it away won’t be as simple or as cheap as it has been for some Middleborough homeowners.
Over the years, 13 of Middleborough’s estimated 50 private ways have been plowed by the town. But that practice is over, brought to a halt at the end of last winter with an injunction issued by the Plymouth Superior Court.
Former Middleborough selectman Adam Bond and 20 other residents sought the injunction, contending that officials were illegally using public funds for private benefit by clearing private ways. Under state law, communities can adopt a statute, through a ballot vote, that authorizes selectmen to maintain such roads. Middleborough has never adopted the statute.
The judge agreed with the residents’ complaint.
The private ways are streets that were never formally accepted as public roads. Some are old country roads; others lie in newer subdivisions, where developers failed to follow through with the formal street acceptance process. To become an accepted public way, a road must meet certain engineering standards, then pass muster at Town Meeting.
Selectmen recently sent letters to homeowners on the private streets warning that town snowplows and sanders will now pass them by.
“It’s unfortunate, but our hands are tied by the injunction,’’ said selectmen chairwoman Marsha Brunelle.
Middleborough isn’t the only town grappling with private roads. Officials in Milton have discussed the issue but have yet to take steps to address it, said Town Administrator Kevin Mearn. The town clears some private ways, but not others.
“We just hired a new assistant DPW director,’’ Mearn said. “My sense is the town will continue with its existing practice at least for this winter.’’
In Mattapoisett, voters addressed the issue last spring by adopting the provisions of state law Chapter 40, Section 6C, which allows selectmen discretion when it comes to maintaining private ways. Residents on those streets can now petition the selectmen to authorize plowing, and the board makes the decision with input from the highway department, said Town Administrator Michael Gagne.
Brunelle said residents in Middleborough will have to adopt the same provision to solve their problem.
“According to the law, the petition to take a ballot vote on the state statute has to come from the residents,’’ she said. “We can’t do it for them.’’
The homeowners on the streets involved, meanwhile, are trying to come up with a more immediate answer to the problem, which grows more pressing by the day. No one appears happy to be dealing with the situation.
The 28 families on River’s Edge Drive have each pitched in $100 to hire a private contractor to treat their street. But it could get expensive fast. The rate for plowing is $300 for a 3-inch storm, $600 for a 6-inch storm, and so on, based on the bids collected. If the snow stops, then restarts, it will be considered a new storm. Residents will have to replenish the snow treatment account as needed.
River’s Edge homeowner Margaret Zuppalla said the plowing arrangement is nerve-racking.
“If we have a bad winter, a lot of us could lose our houses,’’ she said.
She accused local officials of letting her neighborhood down.
“At a meeting last December, they said they’d do everything they could to help us,’’ she said. “If they had worked with us, it should have gotten done.’’
Residents on Gibbs Road, another private way, petitioned the spring Town Meeting to accept Gibbs Road as a public road, and voters agreed, so the homeowners thought their problems were solved. But selectmen argued that the Town Meeting action was invalid because the road does not meet the necessary engineering standards.
Longtime Gibbs Road resident Darlene Anastas called the interpretation “garbage.’’
“The neighborhood is together on this, and we’re going to fight their decision,’’ she said. “We’ve got a lawyer and we’re looking at our options.’’
Local police Officer Steven Schofield and his neighbors on Veronica Lane, also a private way, came up with a solution they believe will be effective and affordable: They got together and bought an old truck to use just for plowing.
“Our street is only 900 feet long and there are only seven houses on it,’’ Schofield said. Two of the homeowners drive trucks for a living, he said.
“We’re writing to the Planning Board to see how to get the road accepted,’’ he said. “Hopefully by next winter, it will be all done and we won’t have to worry.’’
Christine Legere can be reached at email@example.com.