WESTERLY — The town will soon stop providing plowing and other services to roads that were never officially accepted as public. The decision follows months of study of more than 80 private roads by the town's engineering and legal staff.
The issue came into focus last fall when Town Manager J. Mark Rooney learned that town services such as plowing, resurfacing and pothole repairs were being provided to some private roads. Rooney wrote to property owners on the roads to inform them that services would no longer be provided but the Town Council asked him to continue plowing to give residents more time to line up services for their roads.
The private road issue was then referred to the Town Council's Public Works Subcommittee and was reviewed by Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr. and his staff. According to Rooney, residents on nine of the roads who received his letter raised questions or concerns about the decision to stop providing services.
On Monday residents of Michaels Way and Lanphere Road, two of the roads affected by the new policy, pleaded with the Town Council, asking that the services they had come to expect for years be continued.
Rooney and Conley said spending town resources on property not owned by the town raises legal problems for the town. Rooney explained that he learned about the situation as the town staff was working to develop a list of roads to be repaired with funds from the $15 million road bond approved by voters in 2018.
"We had $15 million of bond proceeds. If we spend bond money or even taxpayer money I could not in good legal, ethical conscience let the town do that because it's not proper or legal to spend town taxpayer money, especially bond money, on property the town does not own," Rooney said.
Conley said the town also assumes responsibility when it provides services on private roads.
"When you engage in maintenance, even though it's on private property, we have a duty to do so with due care so we assume the liability for doing that correctly, which means that we take on the liability of it being done correctly and if damage or injury results, it's still our responsibility even though we've done it on private property," Conley said.
Conley also explained the state law that outlines how a road becomes a public road. In short, all roads are private, he said, until officially accepted by the town as public. His firm reviewed the land records and other documents to determine whether any of the roads on a list provided by the town staff had ever been accepted as public.
Susan Bookataub, a Michaels Way resident, said her road was erroneously placed on the list of private roads. She said the road has received town services for years and said that a survey stamped by the town's Public Works Department showed the original owner's intent to dedicate the road to the town. Two nearby roads, Boy Scout Drive and Schilke Drive, are considered public roads, she said.
"It is our hope that the town will continue to provide the services it has continuously provided in the past to Michaels Way and as it has to the other roads that are depicted on the approved survey," Bookataub said.
Philip Gately of Lanphere Road said the town has plowed the road and provided other services for the 55 years he has lived there. He asked for the Town Council's assistance. "Now I have a problem as a citizen. You are here to help citizens ... how do you resolve it and help the people who are being hurt?"
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said the town should continue to provide services on the few private roads that have received services in the past. "We're talking about 10 roads in dispute out of hundreds of roads," he said. "These are our neighbors, it's in the budget to plow their road. I don't think it's going to kill the town of Westerly to get some waivers from them and do it."
Town Councilor Sharon Ahern took the opposite position. "It isn't fair to the rest of the citizens," Ahern said, to provide services to residents on private roads.
Rooney and Conley both said they would review and consider additional documentation from residents in the future showing that their roads were accepted by the town.