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Law ties LI towns' hands on private road snow removal, repairs

An unplowed Howell Lane in Riverhead on Feb.

An unplowed Howell Lane in Riverhead on Feb. 12, 2014, after a recent snowfall. The towns have limited responsibility for private roads. Credit: James Carbone

Every snowstorm that has hit Long Island this winter brought out state, town and county road crews, working night and day with snowplows to clear the streets. But they bypass hundreds of private roads whose residents are on their own for snow removal.

It is illegal for town officials to spend taxpayer money to maintain or even plow private roads, except if a state of emergency has been declared. Then, private roads can be cleared of snow to provide access for firetrucks or ambulances, and potholes can be repaired to make roads passable for emergency vehicles.

Reversing the ban would require the State Legislature to change the law and millions to be spent acquiring necessary rights of way to widen the roads -- some of which are unpaved stretches of dirt -- to meet state standards, improve drainage and reconstruct them, because in some cases the streets do not have a proper sub-base.

"Years ago, they were all dirt, and we graded them once a year, depending on the weather," said Southampton Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor, who has more than 500 private roads in his town.

But Gregor can't do that anymore because some residents have filled potholes with large rocks and other things that can damage highway department equipment.

"I see people filling potholes in with cement," Gregor added. "There are trees right off the edge of the road . . . all the good dirt is worn away. That's why they get these puddles. It's like World War I bomb craters."

In Riverhead, town highway crews make one pass down private roads with their smaller plow trucks once it becomes clear that emergency vehicles can't get through. In other towns, highway crews wait for a formal state of emergency before doing anything. And in every case, private roads do not get touched until all primary town roads are clear and the secondary roads made safe.

There are no official figures on the number of private roads on Long Island because they are not part of any municipal highway system. And they are not all clearly marked. Several have regular street signs, with no indication the street is not part of a town road system.

Brookhaven Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro has one street on the North Shore, Valentine Road in Shoreham, where a private road begins at the end of a public road, and both share the same name.

"We literally have a road that ends at a private road, and we can't just be nice and plow it," he said. "We don't pile up our snow at the road end either."

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell found out about the pitfalls of living on a private road when he moved to the area and became a town assessor.

"The first house I bought was on a private road," he recalled. That was in 1991, and many of the other properties on his block were second homes whose owners inhabited them only in summer. When it came time to discuss hiring a private snowplow operator, the summer residents did not want to chip in because they had no need for the service.

When a storm hit, Russell had to make do.

"I walked in the snow to the public highway and had a staffer pick me up," he said.

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