Private Roads, public expense: Emergency vehicles at risk on unmaintained private roads in Oxford Hills

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OXFORD HILLS — Living in rural, western Maine where lakes and ponds are abundant means there’s plenty of private, camp and discontinued roads for firefighters to deal with during an emergency when seconds count.

Charles Blaquiere SLICK — Harrison Fire Engine 4 slid down an icy, private road last month, which caused it to roll over and ruin the front chassis.
Charles Blaquiere
SLICK — Harrison Fire Engine 4 slid down an icy, private road last month, which caused it to roll over and ruin the front chassis.

After the recent rollover of Harrison’s Engine 4 down an icy slope on a private road, the Advertiser Democrat decided to take a closer look at the regional situation.

On Jan. 17, the Harrison Fire Department responded to a carbon monoxide detector alarm on Harrison Heights Road, a private road off Route 117. The road was plowed but minimally sanded, according to Town Manager George “Bud” Finch.

After the wheel blocks were removed, the truck slid down the steep hill and rounded a corner at the bottom of the hill where the wheels caught the shoulder of the road and flipped the vehicle into the woods. Driver Mo Kautz only had scratches as a result of the accident and the vehicle’s front chassis was totaled.

In an email, Finch said Harrison has guidelines for road construction in town, but regarding the steep slope, it is an issue that affects private and public roads. Other factors come into play, including age of the road and whether or not the road was built prior to the town’s road construction ordinance that was adopted in 1992.

“Part of this came from an era when municipalities plowed private roads, which they no longer can do,” Finch wrote. “There is also the issue of many roads, which can get into a legal snarl when it is challenged as to if the town road is a deeded road or a right of way road, where the town basically has maintained it for a period of years. I am not a legal advisor can only tell you from experience that it is a wide open topic.”

He added that the road construction ordinance is old and will need to be reviewed by selectmen during a workshop.

“I do not see any major issues that stick out at this time as I know there was a lot of research put into this at the time it was accepted,” Finch wrote.

In neighboring Norway, Fire Chief Dennis Yates said most of the town’s private roads are camp roads and his department hasn’t had a situation like Harrison’s.

“Let’s hope we never have it happen,” Yates said about the firetruck roll over. “I can’t think of any roads we have that would be steeper than Pikes Hill – that [Harrison Heights Road] was steeper than Pikes Hill.”

He doesn’t believe there is anything on the books that governs the maintenance of private roads in town. Town Manager David Holt confirmed this.

“Say a place did burn and the fire marshal said, ‘How come you didn’t put it out?’ We would say, ‘We couldn’t get in,’” Yates said, speaking hypothetically about responding to an nonmaintained road during a fire. He noted insurance companies would not be happy about such a situation.

He’s had insurance companies request letters from him stating a private road has been maintained, which he has sent.

Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost counted his blessings in that he hasn’t had a fire truck slide down a steep hill and need to be replaced, though once he had a truck end up in a ditch and needed to be towed out.

“There are a few private roads and they are not kept up,” Frost said, noting it’s worse in the wintertime. “We have a few even right now it’s hard to get through they’re narrow, bumpy. … If I think I can’t get through, I am not putting the men in there.”

He said he wasn’t aware of any town ordinances requiring homeowners or residents to maintain private roads in Paris. Interim Town Manager Sawin Millett wrote in an email he was “not aware of any provision that specifies how roads in a private subdivision must be maintained, plowed and/or sanded.”

“They choose to live there, I guess,” Frost said.

Over in Oxford, Fire Chief Wayne Jones said his crew responds to fire and emergencies on private roads.

“We have a number of them as you can imagine with the lakes and stuff,” he said. “Not all of them are plowed in the wintertime.”

West Paris Fire Chief Norm St. Pierre ensures private roads are sanded before he sends his crew in.

“We have a lot of roads that are real icy – they’re not town-maintained roads. We will not travel down them until we can get a sand truck up there,” he said. “We don’t even take a chance. … There is no way to stop even if there’s brakes. We’ve all been there with our cars.”

St. Pierre acknowledged waiting for the sanding truck does delay response time, but the town’s public works crew can usually get to a scene “pretty quickly.”

In Otisfield, which borders Harrison, Fire Chief Kyle Jordan deals with two homeowners associations in town, which govern their respective private roads.

Recently payment regarding a fire hydrant issue arose with the Silvaqua Homeowners Association. The association and town have had an informal agreement where the association shared the initial installation costs of the hydrant and plowed the road for emergency vehicles, according to Sun Media archives.

The hydrant protects all homes in the development and a few other homes outside of it, according to the association.

“I really have no further comment regarding the issue to which you are referring, other that I will continue to work with private property owners to provide the best protection and services possible,” Jordan wrote in an email to the Advertiser.

In Hartford, most of these issues stem from abandoned and discontinued roads, instead of strictly private roads, Selectmen Chair Lee Holman said. Maintenance of such roads is exactly what the town’s road committee and selectmen are grappling with as they continue to work to update the road standards ordinance from 1988.

“Our real concern at this time is to protect the taxpaying public from people moving to an abandoned or discontinued road and expecting the town to pick it up for them,” Holman said.

She recalled the town recently putting roughly $30,000 into Gurney Hill Road.

“We kind of got burned but the people who begged and pleaded [for the road work] … put [their house] on the market in a short time,” Holman said. “The town got taken for a ride.”

She hoped the amendments to the road standard ordinance could be brought to a special town meeting prior to annual town meeting in June, but it doesn’t look like it will happen since there’s still a lot to address in the document, Holman said.

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