Philipstown officials, residents in dust-up over dirt roads

The Old Albany Post Road at Travis Corners The Old Albany Post Road at Travis Corners Road in Garrison played an important role in the French and Indian War as well as the Revolutionary War. (Feb. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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To pave or not to pave: That is the question that has Philipstown residents talking dirt.

Road, that is.

It's not the first time residents of the community, celebrated for its rural quality, have faced off over how to balance modern needs against historical value. But in recent weeks, a local group has been calling on the state to leave the unpaved byways in their current form "in perpetuity."

The controversy centers on a 6.2-mile stretch of the historic Old Albany Post Road that runs from Sprout Brook Road at Continental Village to the junction with U.S. Route 9 at Garrison.

Shortly after Philipstown Town Supervisor Richard Shea floated a proposal to pave several segments to address floods and other hazards, local homeowners organized to oppose the plan, saying the picturesque roadway, which they call an "irreplaceable gem," is critical to the area's distinctive character.

The standoff continued at a Feb. 13 meeting of the Old Road Society of Philipstown when the local group endorsed a "position paper" asking the state to enact legislation that would make it mandatory to leave the road intact indefinitely.

"This is a good road, a safe road, and it can be properly maintained and fiscally viable," said Terry Zaleski of Garrison, president of the group.

Previously an old Indian trail, Old Albany Post Road was traveled by George Washington's Continental Army and by French Gen. the Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. Local legend credits Benjamin Franklin with placing its first distance markers. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Old Albany Post Road attracts tourists and hikers from throughout the area.

At the society meeting, Shea reassured local residents that he would "work with them" to reach a solution that will satisfy all parties. He said he would begin by having Elmwood Park, N.J.-based Langan Engineering assess the objections raised by Old Road Society of Philipstown, along with a range of potential solutions. An engineering report should be completed by the end of the month.

Philipstown officials long have worried that Old Albany Post Road is substandard, potentially dangerous and costly. It is plagued by frequent floods, poor drainage, runoff that fouls local streams and a narrow surface that makes two-way travel a challenge for school buses and ambulances.

The township considered paving several portions -- amounting to about 2 miles of its length -- as the most viable option. The amount proposed to be put out to bid for paving projects totaled nearly $800,000 for this year. Additional work this year to prepare for other paving proposed for next year was nearly $100,000. No bonding has yet been sought.

"I have 30 miles of paved roads and 30 miles of unpaved roads in the town, but the dirt roads take 75 percent of my time," said Roger Chirico, the Philipstown highway superintendent.

Chirico, who has been called a "blacktop terrorist" for endorsing the paving proposal, pointed to the failure of past efforts, including adding more than 5,000 feet of storm drains and catch basins.

Shea also noted that he must answer to homeowners dealing with dust kicked up by the roadway or who are trapped in their houses when extreme storms wash out the unpaved roads.

But Old Road Society of Philipstown fears that paving may seem too easy of an answer, one that would replace a "lateral recreation area" and turn it into a high-speed route that would inevitably endanger hikers, walkers and schoolchildren.

"We would like the township to re-engineer their approach to dealing with old roads," Zaleski said.

The group also argued that paving is not the only solution to town officials' concerns.

Citing information presented by civil engineer Paul Crabtree, a Colorado Springs consultant hired by the society, Old Road Society of Philipstown argued that the real fault lies with poor ongoing maintenance of the dirt roads. Crabtree said he found substandard road grading, inadequate entrenchment repairs, spotty success in removing excess materials from the roadway shoulders and poor maintenance of drainage along the road. He concluded that proper maintenance of a dirt road would be less expensive, safer and more environmentally responsible.

For Shea, the whole argument may be moot.

"We haven't paved a road here in almost 12 years, and nothing is imminent. These are long-term discussions," said Shea, whose family has lived in the area for more than a century.

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