A recent letter to the Times huffed and puffed about suing the city over the neighbors having to pave their own private roads in Gloucester. It’s understandable that he is miffed, however, since it appears the city is playing switcheroo and only recently stopped paving their neighborhood. That is an issue worth challenging if they can show the change is arbitrary or capricious — if an official suddenly read the law and changed city policy.
In fact, there is a state law about this. In fact, it is one of the oldest of the colonial laws and it has been applied by the city to our Eastern Point neighborhood since the ’50s. In those days, the costs of paving were so low, folks just dealt with it. Today, it’s not so cheap. The law says that if 10 or more people use a private road and they want to pave it — or fix a bridge -- that every homeowner on that road must pay their share. (It was something like Mass. Law #220.127.116.11, an early number. You lawyers will hafta correct me.) It stipulated that first, the group of 10 or more must nominate an assessor and they tabulate the costs. Then the group gets together to vote yes or no on this or that repair. Majority rules, democracy in action. They might only chose to fix the worst problems, everything or nothing — but it’s a group decision.
There are many private road neighborhoods in the city. There is not a consistent policy. For example, Wolf Hill residents assess their paving needs and then the city will fill them but bill the owners on their tax bills. Out here, the residents association paves the roads and bills the homes directly without assessing the costs or getting a group vote ahead of time. They derive their power from that old colonial law and the custom of the association paving the roads for six decades. But the Eastern Point Association, like Wolf Hill or Annisquam, does not actually have the power to make and enforce regulations concerning the Eastern Point roads, just to pave them. The original Eastern Point Company (1902) did have those rights but disbanded in 1923 without a successor and didn’t pass on the rights. The city paved and plowed the Point from the ‘20s until the ‘50s when Julian Hatch (city) and architect Don Monell (Eastern Point) had a falling out over the gate guard. Eastern Point has done its own plowing and paving since. Squam’s Rockholm and Norwood Heights have to hire outside contractors to pave them, but the city plows. Other roads there — only yards away — like Leonard Street are fully paved and plowed by the city, so go figure.
Brier Neck could probably use its legal war chest to investigate turning the roads back over to the city. The Point has always turned down that option but that is the route to free paving (but no gate guard). It is likely that applies to the Wingaersheek Beach Association too, and Rockholm. In fact, that solution is most likely available to every private road in the city. But it has to be unanimous in the neighborhood — every private road owner must agree.
It is certainly understandable that paying as much property tax as Brier Neck folks do and then have their paving policy changed on them, would produce a neighborhood full of howls. The city is taking an inconsistent stance if it is also still plowing them and the other neighborhoods. Why did they change the one policy and not the other? They won’t pave, plow or sand the Eastern Point roads even though the city and the residents use the roads to the lighthouse. Imagine the howl if the road to the breakwater was closed as too dangerous, so it’s a delicate balance. There was a year way back when Mayor Bruce Tobey wisely agreed to sand and salt the road to the lighthouse just to keep it open in a deluge year of snow. The city also helped plowing after Snowmageddon in every neighborhood, private roads or no.
The upside of private roads is that the residents own almost all of them to the center line. Each owner controls the parking, so to speak. Don’t know how that has affected the good folks on Brier Neck but on Eastern Point, that has sparked conflict when the association has tried to lay down new rules without the powers and various road owners have objected, especially about recent “no parking” signs on their property. All part of the crazy quilt in Gloucester called private roads. Each neighborhood has a different feeling about them. With privacy comes maintenance. With maintenance comes bills. As time passes, those bills get bigger.
Brier Neck’s case seems stronger if the city did just recently change its policy. Precedent counts for a lot in law. Also, there’s no gate guard so anyone can just drive in to their roads. However, if they lose their case with the city, they can always hire one if that’s what the DPW wants. Just what the city needs: another gate guard.
Pave on, pave on while I rave on, rave on . . .
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.