As the Riverhead Town Board works to settle a legal dispute on whether the town should maintain a private community’s roads, officials may face another potential lawsuit on the matter.
Highway Superintendent George Woodson said he is consulting his attorney after the board voted 3-2 at its Oct. 3 regular meeting to reject a resolution that would have paid for Mineola-based Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan LLP to represent him in a lawsuit filed by a civic group. It also would have paid for any related litigation, which would have allowed him to sue the town board over whether the town’s highway department should maintain the roads at the private Oak Hills community in Baiting Hollow.
The Oak Hills Civic Association named Woodson and the town as defendants in a 2016 lawsuit filed in Suffolk County Supreme Court. The group wants Riverhead to provide full maintenance — such as paving, snow removal and tree trimming — to the community’s 12 roads.
Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who voted to have the town pay for Woodson’s legal counsel, said she felt that maintaining the Oak Hills roads sets a precedent that could result in the town paying hundreds of thousands of dollars more if communities with similar private roads demand the same treatment. Woodson agreed with her.
“You can’t take highway money and spend it on private roads,” Woodson said.
The department tended the roads in past winters as a courtesy, according to several town officials. However, in 2014, Woodson, after consulting the town attorney, said he sent out a letter to Oak Hills homeowners stating the town would no longer plow those roads.
A public outcry from residents prompted the town board to pass a 2015 law allowing the highway department to tend certain Oak Hills roads during emergencies, but not requiring the department to pave, install drainage or make other improvements. The lawsuit soon followed.
David Antwork, the attorney representing the civic association in the lawsuit, said Sunday while the board’s Sept. 6 vote to incorporate the community’s roads was “a huge step forward” in resolving the litigation, the lawsuit was still pending until the issue between Woodson and the town board is addressed.
“It’s great to have the resolution, but when you have the person whose job it is to follow the law steadfastly saying that he’s not going to follow the law, it prevents settlement of the action,” Antwork said.
The board voted 3-2 at its Sept. 6 regular meeting to incorporate the Oak Hills roads into the town’s highway system under a state law that allows roads used by the public for at least 10 years to be designated as a highway and permits the town to maintain them.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said at that meeting that the town could afford to pay to maintain Oak Hills roads since the highway budget has annual surpluses.
“If [Woodson] wants to bring litigation against us, that’s not in the best interests of the taxpayers,” Walter said at the board’s Sept. 28 work session.