HANSON — How, and how much does it cost, to get a private way accepted as a public street in order to keep it in good repair?
A group of frustrated residents of three unaccepted roadways — Alden Way, Gray Lane and Stringer Lane — attended the Tuesday, Aug. 23 Select Board meeting to ask about the legal status of their streets. The session’s agenda had been amended at 10:50 a.m. that day to include the discussion.
Aware that the issue is often an understandably emotional one, Select Board Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett set ground rules that speakers remove emotion and “talk about facts” and what the town can and cannot do.
“This board’s job is to look out for the interests of the entire town — not just one group of people vs. another,” she said.
“At the very least, I think [residents] need to think about having a homeowners’ association at this point,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “You’ve got to think about organizing together and getting an HOA because what we’re hearing is there’s no one point of contact to deal with from the town.”
If they would prefer, they could also continue addressing the issue as a concerned group of neighbors.
One neighbor suggested the discussion leads her to believe another meeting is in order.
“I don’t know how it’s fallen apart this bad that we have to go looking at an HOA or coming up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to correct this ‘terrible neighborhood,’ which in my eyes is one of the nicest neighborhoods that people want to move into,” said Carol Jensen, a 25-year resident of Gray Lane.
Alden Way resident Sandra Crawford, who wrote the letter to Town Administrator Lisa Green asking to be included on the agenda, because residents of the area “have grave concerns about our streets and inaction” surrounding them over the years. Town Counsel land use expert Brian Winner and Planning Board Chair Joseph Campbell also attended the meeting virtually.
Campbell said there are “tons” of unaccepted private ways in Hanson.
Winner stressed the need for a clear point of contact for residents as well as the possible need for a workshop meeting with that town liaison regarding road conditions and infrastructure and potential costs in order to have something to focus on.
“We need for you guys to organize,” FitzGerald-Kemmett told area residents. We won’t use that dreaded three-letter [HOA] acronym, but it allows us to have one point of contact.”
She said the board would decide on one or two members willing to have workshops with them and continue the conversation.
“I was not aware that we purchased [a home] on a private way or private street,” she said. “All my documentation said that it was a public road.”
She and her husband have lived on Alden Way for about two and a half years, discovering last month that it was not an accepted public roadway. All three streets are considered private ways on the town’s list of unaccepted streets.
Crawford has since spent “quite a bit of time at Town Hall” asking questions of Green and the Planning Board as well as reviewing the minutes of Planning Board meetings covering the 11 years.
“We’ve come to realize quite a few things,” she said. “The town had to send a bond back [following one developer’s lawsuit], but I’m still a little confused about how we jumped from what I think everybody in that neighborhood thought — they lived on public roads.”
While that is the past, Crawford said the past affects now and will affect the future. In reviewing the minutes, she found that her home’s previous owners frequently attended Planning Board meetings to ask similar questions.
“It seemed nobody was listening and nobody cared,” she said. “There’s been a lot of talk about the developer not doing what he was supposed to, what the town did not do correctly, how it wasn’t rectified way back in 2011 — but I can tell you this, it is not the fault of the residents that live on that street.”
Residents are not responsible for making road repairs or fixing what was not done correctly, she said. They want to know where Select Board stands on the issue and they want some maintenance attention given to the roads.
“We don’t want to live on one of those roads that is not safe to travel on,” Crawford said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said that, while she understands the concerns and demand for road repair and maintenance, she said there are “a number of unintended consequences as a result” of any decision to do so on the town’s part.
“We’re setting a precedent,” she said. “There are a lot of private ways in Hanson and we are a town that’s struggling financially. … I think we have to figure out what is the town’s responsibility and then what is the right thing to do here.”
Select Board member Jim Hickey said that, as a board, they have to do better, and volunteered to get together with residents in an effort to find out what is needed to be done.
“Somebody dropped the ball somewhere,” he said. “So, now who’s going to pick it up?”
The town’s Highway Department does plow unaccepted streets, and grades the unaccepted dirt roads, but state Chapter 90 funds used by towns to repair public ways are not available to fund work on unaccepted streets, FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Town Planner Antonio DeFrias, who said he only had history to go by, said the development in question was approved in 1997 and the developer withdrew and completed the road, but deficiencies in that road were discovered when the developer sought road acceptance. The town hired an outside consultant to review the road.
“That company did a less than stellar job, I guess,” he said, noting that the Planning Board had refused to return the bond money because of continued deficiencies in the road, leading to the lawsuit to which Crawford referred.
“At this point, there is no bond money for this project,” he said.
Campbell said the Planning Board, over the past 10-12 years, has had changes take place over the years either through elections or resignations, leaving open the question as to whether private roads are a priority.
“This, as well as a few other projects have come up almost quarterly,” he said, explaining it was meant to keep track of deficiencies. “For everybody who lives on a private way in Hanson, or that lives on a subdivision – streets are not public ways.”
Gaining acceptance as a public way is a fairly lengthy process, Campbell added, including the need for a Town Meeting vote.
FitzGerald-Kemmett asked what the deficiencies are and how they can be fixed.
A survey needs to be conducted to determine that as well as how doing the work would impact the town before the situation can be corrected, Campbell said. Problems with costs, from prevailing wage costs to actual work needed make the final cost difficult to afford.
“There’s very little that we could do without trespass or something of that nature,” he added.
There will also be hidden problems that are not visible during an assessment, officials said.
“It’s like buying used car,” DiFrias said. “You’re going to do your due diligence to see, ‘Do I want this car as is, or are there things I need to fix before I take it on?’”
He said the town could go back to Environmental Partners and use the 2019 report, paid for with $3,500 from the original bond, or ask them to do another, in-depth report now. The cost is tough to predict, but he said it would cost a couple of thousand dollars.
“I don’t see [it costing] $20,000, but I see it costing between $5,000 and $10,000,” he said.
“We’ve always used Alden Way as the exact reason for how not to build a development [road],” said Select Board member Joe Weeks, who once served on the Planning Board. “I really want to be able to help.”
But he said, the previous court decision forcing the town to return a developer’s bond, causes a concern because once the town accepts such a street, the town owns it.
“What’s clear is improvements need to be made … before the town accepts it as a public way,” said FitzGerald-Kemmett. “In order to do that, you have to look at the funding. Who’s going to fund it, the town or the people who live there?”
She expressed doubt that Town Meeting would be willing to spend the money to make acceptance possible.