Residents of Dirt Roads Express Opposing Views on Paving

Both sides invoke safety in their arguments

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Residents of Philipstown’s dirt roads jammed Town Hall on Wednesday night (Jan. 16) with impassioned arguments for or against the paving of dirt roads, with both camps grounding their arguments in concerns about safety.

Drawing at least 70 participants, the three-hour discussion occurred about two months after Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea announced that he expects the town to pave some trouble-prone dirt-road sections this year to address maintenance and environmental problems and save money.

Town Board dirt-road workshop
Town Board dirt-road workshop (Photo by M. Turton)

Likely targets include the Saunders Hill stretch of Old Albany Post Road and the western end of South Mountain Pass, as well 450 feet at the southern end of Old Albany Post Road, in the works for more than three years. His statement in November galvanized an ad hoc anti-paving group into action but also elicited a favorable response from those who support paving — at least on some parts of some roads.

Shea informed everyone Wednesday that “this is not an end. It’s a beginning. The Town Board does not make snap judgments” and wants good input. He observed that the dirt-roads issue has been around for years “and everybody gets very excited” as claims proliferate “that it’s a plot to pave every road. It’s not.”

He said, “One of the drivers of this is cost. That’s not the main driver for me. I have grave concerns about the environmental issues.” Streams often run alongside dirt roads and “our road material is in those streams. They’re being filled in.”

Also raising environmental issues, Councilor Nancy Montgomery said, “I love the dirt road, but what I love most is the stream next to the dirt road. And the dirt road isn’t there anymore. I see the fish eggs being suffocated by the Item 4,” a treatment used on dirt roads.

Shea said the Town Board wants to gather data and pursue “best practices. In some cases, paving is the best practice.” However, he emphasized, “We are not wholesale proponents of paving all the dirt roads in Philipstown.”

Well over an hour of the session was taken up by presentations by the coalition of paving opponents. A movie showing residents happily walking on dirt roads was followed by a lengthy PowerPoint presentation by Paul Crabtree, a Colorado engineering expert brought in by the dirt-road supporters, and by talks by others, all of whom suggested the town focus on alternatives to paving, including better maintenance of the dirt roads.

“These roads are hundreds of years old and we should be looking 100 hundred years out, or 200 years out,” Crabtree said. His many suggestions included ways to build or rebuild better roads and deal with run-off, such as holding ponds, rain gardens and trenching on both sides of a road, avoiding the old formula of “pave, pipe and dump … dump into the stream.”

Town Board members expressed skepticism about some of what they heard.

Councilor Dave Merandy questioned Minnesota data Crabtree used. Minnesota has a flatter terrain and “I think you’re taking a pretty big jump” to compare it to Philipstown, he said.

Councilor John Van Tassel wondered “how would two cars pass” or a large vehicle like a fire truck maneuver on a narrow dirt road with a trench on both sides. He recalled the post-hurricane isolation of some homes. “There were a number in this town that were completely inaccessible,” he said. Furthermore, the town had explored some of the techniques Crabtree recommended “and were told it wouldn’t work with dirt roads,” he noted.

Speeding danger

Montgomery criticized the belief that dirt roads are typically quiet and non-hazardous. “I just have a real issue with this perception that cars are going slower” on dirt roads, she said. “It’s a huge problem.”

“You’d be astounded at the speeds on some of these roads,” including Old Albany Post Road, Shea added. “They’re not going slower.”

Indeed, the dangers of speeding were invoked, by both sides.

Gordon Stewart, who lives on Chapman Road near a piece of Old Albany Post Road proposed for paving, cited “two irrefutable behavioral factors with human beings and their automobiles. One, the more easy and convenient you make it to use a roadway, the more of them will use it. Two, the faster it is possible to drive a motor vehicle, the faster people will drive it. Already we have people going 50 miles an hour” on Old Albany Post Road.

He honed in on statistics from Crabtree’s talk that gave the level of pedestrian fatalities in pedestrian-car accidents as 15 percent on gravel roads, 45 percent on paved roads, and 85 percent on wide paved roads. “I think that life and death is a factor that needs to be weighed” in the decision-making, said Stewart, publisher of Philipstown.info/The Paper. “That’s not something that can be avoided.”

Montgomery reiterated, “We have a serious problem with speeding on our dirt roads.”

Stewart replied, “If we have a problem now, why would we not be increasing it by paving?”

Merandy, who said he had not made up his mind on paving, urged compilation of data on accidents on dirt roads versus paved roads. “I don’t think we should say that if we pave, we’re going to have dead people all over the road.” At the same time, “it’s a concern, it’s a valid point,” and thus the town needs the facts, he said.

Maria Kelley, who drove a school bus in Garrison for five years, said that “in some situations, there’s no other option,” but paving. On some dirt road stretches, “it’s not safe the way it is, and we can’t leave it that way,” she said. “So are we going to wait for some tragedy to happen? Or are we going to do something about it?”

Scott Higbee, a father of four young children on Old Albany Post Road, described his family as converts to the view that “paving is a must-do. The smart thing to do is pave part of this road.”

Along with basic safety, he, too, mentioned issues of environmental protection and costs. “A paved road makes more sense economically. Let’s do what’s best for the town. Let’s not be selfish” and force Philipstown citizens who do not live on Garrison dirt roads to pay the high road costs for dirt-road backers. “This is for the collective good of the town and not just the vocal minority.”

Joe Giachinta extended thanks to the town for paving part of Lane Gate Road. “For 30 years I watched that road wash down to Route 9. It went down to the stream, down to the wetlands. I’m not saying pave every single road. But we have to look at these steep grades. Salt running into streams is an environmental issue. Some of the roads need to be paved; not every one of them.”

Concerns about history being obliterated arose, too.

In talking about paving a road like Old Albany, “You’re talking about paving history,” Garrison resident Christine Foertsch said. “I built there because of what this place looks like. Is the only answer paving?”

“I would say if we pave one section of one road, we’re not going to destroy the character of Philipstown … or destroy our heritage,” Merandy said.

The ramifications of paving for inter-governmental relations likewise came up.

Terry Zaleski, a lawyer, warned of unease among state and federal officials as well as trail-hiking organizations over the paving plans. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has “a real concern about what has been proposed,” Zaleski said. “The National Park Service has expressed a real concern to me” because of the proximity of the Old Albany Post Road to the Appalachian Trail.

Bonding could prove problematic and the State Department of Transportation would be unhappy if — as critics contend — paving would be a short-term solution only and state money were involved, he said, raising the specter of allegations of “material misrepresentation” as a result. “Town folks need to understand the consequences,” Zaleski said.

Shea objected to “veiled threats” and told Zaleski, “You’re suggesting we could never pave another road. We have had success in paving roads, and they have been durable.” Besides, he said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a low tolerance for municipalities seeking repeated aid. “You can’t keep going back to FEMA. They won’t fund you. None of this is taken lightly,” he said of the town decision-making on dirt roads. “We don’t side-step the law.”

One dirt roads aficionado, Old Road Society Vice President Noel Kropf, said the group is “willing to co-fund, with the town,” a review of alternatives to paving, “to try it out.” He noted that a five-year work outline prepared by Highway Superintendent Roger Chirico (who did not attend the workshop) calls “for paving half of Old Albany Post Road. So that’s a concern.” Nonetheless, he also said, “I personally am very open to the idea parts of the road are better-off paved.”

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One Response to "Residents of Dirt Roads Express Opposing Views on Paving"

  1. Lynn and Terry Zaleski   January 31, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    At the Town Workshop on Wednesday, January 16, Paul Crabtree, expert and engineer in dirt roads, described “best practices” that should be used in maintaining Philipstown’s heritage dirt roads. From what we’ve been able to learn, these practices have not been deployed in a coherent strategy to preserve those roads. It was demonstrated at the meeting that dirt roads with similar topography and usage in nearby towns were successfully maintained using these methods. Why not here? Preserving heritage roads means more than dropping and spreading another load of Item 4.

    Too many decisions about road maintenance are being made without engineering input, simply relying on seat of the pants “that should work” approaches. We deserve better than that. Recently, an official at the Highway Department, when asked about its planning for drains already installed along dirt roads, responded, “No, there are no studies, there are no topos [elevation analyses], there are no drawings or anything, or engineering studies, or anything.”

    This is not planning. The same lack of planning and consideration underlies the Highway Department’s recommendations to pave.

    At the workshop, the Town officials noted the great amount of preparation and consultation with other agencies in developing recommendations for paving a flood prone 450 foot section of the Old Albany Post Road near Sprout Brook Road. What the Town officials failed to say was that this degree of planning was performed only because FEMA funds would not otherwise have been available. No such planning or preparation has been done for the much larger dirt road paving projects now proposed ( stretches of Old Albany Post Road, South Mountain Pass and Lane Gate Road).

    Supervisor Shea has been quoted that a new engineer be brought in, one with “fresh eyes.” The selection process for a new engineer should be open, and the qualifications must include experience in constructing and maintaining dirt roads using recognized “best practices.” Since no expert exists locally or in the area, the right person with proper credentials should be sought from the outside.