Residents of a private way in Allenstown fight for town plowing maintenance in winter

  • Residents who live on Riverside Drive in Allenstown are worried about the road being kept up, especially in the winter. A resident complained the town wasn’t properly maintaining the road earlier this year, town administrator Shaun Mulholland said Tuesday, and that prompted the town to look into its responsibilities regarding the roughly half-mile loop along the Suncook River. GEoff forester / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, November 26, 2016

When Jane Laliberte-Evans wakes up in the morning, she’s not quite sure how far she’ll be able to go.

“I never know when I put my feet on the floor if I’m going to be able to walk to the bathroom,” said Laliberte-Evans, a disabled mother of four who lives on Allenstown’s Riverside Drive.

Especially in the winter, when the cold makes her chronic pain particularly bad, she relies on her car to be able to take her two youngest children to the bus stop.

But a recent decision by the town to remove the emergency lane designation for the private road she lives on has her – and her neighbors – worried about getting snowed in this winter.

A resident complained the town wasn’t properly maintaining the road earlier this year, said town administrator Shaun Mulholland, which prompted the town to look into its responsibilities regarding the roughly half-a-mile loop along the Suncook River.

According to Mulholland, town officials decided the select board hadn’t acted properly when it first designated Riverside Drive an emergency way, a status that allows the town to plow the private road. The town also noticed it had been plowing Fanny Drive, a roughly 300 foot extension off Riverside Drive that’s also private, without a legal reason to do so.

“The board cannot use public funds for private purposes unless it meets the authorization in the statute,” Mulholland said.

He cited state law which specifically requires a town to identify a “public welfare or safety interest which surpasses or differs from any private benefits to landowners abutting such lane” when designating an emergency lane.

Plowing the road only benefits those living on the road – not general public interest – Mulholland said, and therefore it can’t be justified under that statute.

The vast majority of towns in New Hampshire include at least one private road, and controversies about maintaining or plowing them is a perennial headache for municipal officials and residents.

Towns and cities in the state aren’t obligated to plow or maintain private roads open for public use, according to New Hampshire Municipal Association articles on the issue. And the association’s writings generally caution against doing so.

“A municipality that provides these services runs the risk of accidentally accepting the road as a new public road – with the result that the municipality will be responsible not only for plowing, but for all repair and maintenance,” C. Christine Fillmore, then a staff attorney at the municipal association, wrote in their newsletter in 2009.

Ryan Carter bought his first home – a one-bedroom cottage – on Riverside Drive just this year. Since getting the original notice from the town it wouldn’t be plowing this winter, he’s scoured town records going back decades to make his case.

He says records show the town doing some form of maintenance on the road since at least 1981. And the fight to get the town to take on Riverside Drive as a public road dates back to the 1960s, when its original owner, Romeo Plourde, first petitioned the town to take it on.

Carter couldn’t find any record of the outcomes of Plourde’s petitions, but in 1980 the town voted on a warrant article to accept the road as a public roadway. The vote passed, but the town declined to do so, arguing the unpaved road needed to be brought up to code.

And that’s a problem that still stands, according to Mulholland.

“A substandard road costs a lot of money for the town to maintain,” he said.

After they declined to re-designate Riverside Drive an emergency way, Carter petitioned the select board to layout a winter road on Riverside Drive, which would also allow the town to plow it during the winter months.

But that requires the town to notify the road’s owner. The problem is no one is sure who owns Riverside Drive.

Mulholland said records indicate William Dobe, a resident on the road, owns it. But Dobe contests this.

“You have to know who you’re going to send the notice to,” Mulholland said. Clearing up the road’s ownership will take additional time and resources, he said, and it’s incumbent on the petitioners, not the town, to do the work.

“The taxpayers are not going to go off on an expedition to find this out,” he said.

Mulholland also noted the town might not be inclined to layout a winter road even if its owner can be discovered. There are plenty of other private roads in Allenstown, he said, where local residents pay for private plowing.

“If we do it for this one, ostensibly we would have to do it for all of the rest,” he said.

Carter wonders if all the work the town has done on the road over the years doesn’t put it on the hook for accepting it as a public roadway, after all. But that’s an argument he’d likely have to make in court.

He said he’s considering asking an attorney to review and potentially take on the case, and rallying neighbors to pay for the suit together.

“But some of these homes are low-income homes that can’t afford plowing, let alone fighting this for who knows how long,” he said.

That’s certainly the case for Laliberte-Evans, who has lived on the road since 1994 and relies on food stamps and travels to food pantries across the Concord area to feed her children.

“I’m just very, very nervous about this winter, and what this winter’s going to bring,” she said. “They say we’re going to have a really bad winter.”

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)