Town Plan for Paving Stirs Dirt Road Dust

Workshop on Wednesday to air views

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

On April 5, 1772, residents of Philipse Precinct — pre-Revolutionary War Philipstown – turned out for a town government meeting on public needs, including road maintenance. Led by Supervisor Beverly Robinson, they divvied up responsibility among individuals for various projects, such as keeping the Post Road functional and overseeing “the road from the Cold Spring” running eastward. (According to a contemporary account, repeated in a 19th-century history book, one man was assigned not only to road-tending but to a related bridge, “which bridge he is to make with his own hands.”)

An 1867 map shows the historic -- even then -- Old Albany Post Road winding through Philipstown. Photo by Mike Turton; map courtesy of James Kelly

An 1867 map shows the historic — even then — Old Albany Post Road winding through Philipstown. Photo by Mike Turton; map courtesy of James Kelly

Nearly 241 years later, citizens of Philipstown will again gather, with the town supervisor presiding, to address the same topic — dirt roads. The 21st-century Town Board has scheduled a dirt-roads workshop for at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 16, at Town Hall, 238 Main St., in Cold Spring.

As in 1772, the Old Albany Post Road — or part of it — figures in the discussion. However, unlike the case in 1772, town officials now propose that one way to deal with dirt roads is to pave their most trouble-prone sections. That concept has prompted protests from those who live along and love dirt roads, who object on grounds of both aesthetics and safety. Along with commenting via online venues, they recently created a Facebook petition “to preserve the Old Albany Post Road and Philipstown’s ‘dirt’ roads.”

Supervisor Richard Shea launched the current round of debate in November, when he announced that to deal with maintenance and environmental problems as well save money, he expects to pave some dirt road sections this year.  Likely targets include the Saunders Hill stretch of Old Albany Post Road, a separate patch of Old Albany Post Road, and the western end of South Mountain Pass, along with sites in Continental Village.

To pave or not to pave: Town Board perspectives

Shea returned to the subject at the end of a Jan. 9 Town Board workshop, citing increasingly erratic weather and climate change, federal government policies, the toll of pollution, and costs of repairs as influences in the decision on paving.

For one thing, he said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been assisting residents and local governments in the wake of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, will not repeatedly fund repairs to unpaved roads. “They’ll do it one time” and then expect local governments to take steps to prevent ongoing damage, he said. “And they’re coming to a point where they don’t even want to do it on a first-time basis. I don’t see, if the storms keep up, with the intensity and volume we’re having, how we’re going to keep up with the repairs — because FEMA is not going to keep coming back.” Shea said it took three years merely to obtain FEMA funds for repairs on the southern end of Old Albany Post Road.

Old Albany Post Road; Photo by K.E. Foley

Old Albany Post Road; Photo by K.E. Foley

Moreover, “the environmental thing is pretty compelling also, when you look at the brooks. There’s our material filling up [streambeds], and that’s an untenable position. On these areas where we have steep hills that terminate in a stream, we haven’t been successful so far in maintaining the quality of the streams or being able to keep the material on the road,” Shea said. “There are any number of reasons for doing it — paving,” he added. “And I understand the reasons for people wanting to maintain dirt roads. By and large, there will still be plenty of dirt roads. We’re talking about a pretty limited scope of projects.”

The supervisor acknowledged that “there’s a cost associated with paving, obviously. And it’s going to be pretty expensive, to do it right.” Consequently, when it comes to paving, “we’re not going to be able to keep going and going and going. I don’t want people to get the impression that we’re pave-happy, because we’re not.”

He said the Town Board is amenable to alternatives to paving, especially “if somebody comes up with some miracle.” But he expressed skepticism it exists. “We keep hearing, ‘you haven’t vetted other solutions.’ Well, we have.”

At the Town Board meeting in November where Shea revealed the paving plans, John Van Tassel, another Town Board member, said that problems of dirt-road accessibility can pose hazards to lives and homes when fire trucks or ambulances find it difficult or impossible to reach households in an emergency.

Highway Department: 2- and 5-year plans    

In pointing out that the dirt-road dilemma “is an issue; it’s been an issue,” Shea recalled Jan. 9 that two years ago he asked Philipstown Highway Superintendent Roger Chirico “to put together a 2-year plan and a 5-year plan not just for pavement but for drainage and general road maintenance.”

Outlines of those plans circulated on a Facebook page, “Philipstown likes dirt roads,” created recently by dirt-road aficionados, including members of the Old Road Society, an organization devoted to monitoring the impact of changing times on the Old Albany Post Road “and to help preserve the road’s unique character.” The 6.6-mile length of road from Contintental Village to Route 9 joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

According to the 2-year Highway Department outline, for Old Albany Post Road in the Griffin Hill area, from the old Bird and Bottle Inn to mail box 929, Chirico anticipates spending $152,576 for paving. His separate 5-year plan lists paving Old Albany Post Road, from “Route 9 to Bird and Bottle,” in a $359,870 project. The 5-year plan likewise shows an Old Albany Post Road drainage project, “from Monroe to Bird and Bottle,” at a cost of $35,013. (2011 tax rolls show a Monroe family at 1143 Old Albany Post Road.)

Chirico’s 2-year plan also sketches out a $172,933 paving project for “East Mountain Road to East Mountain Road North.” Similarly, that 5-year plan mentions a paving project on Avery Road, “black to black top” to deal with “erosion by the aqueduct.” It likewise provides for paving South Mountain Pass, from “Route 9D — box 168 — to Putnam Ridge,” due to “the constant wash-outs, washboards,” at a cost of $130,098.60. Shea said Jan. 9 that Chirico and his staff were compiling more financial data on dirt-road related costs.

Opposition from residents but not all

Reactions to the paving news ran the gamut from opposition to support.

Old Road Society member Madeline Acton Rae wrote on Facebook that “Richard Shea equals Richard Pave: His legacy will be that of the Man Who Paved Over History. Plenty of studies show that with proper road maintenance, dirt roads cost less than paved! We need a new highway supervisor who understands ALL roads in Philipstown.”

Another Facebook user, Ray Wilson, stated that dirt-road supporters “live here because we love our way of life. We live here because of the dirt roads not in spite of them. Our town is a gem in the midst of a world where any vacant piece of land is looked upon as something to be built on or paved over.” He dismissed the idea that paving troublesome road sections could save lives. “Which lives would those be? Many have died on Route 9 — a paved road,” Wilson wrote.

He said town officials “act as if paving the roads would solve all the world’s problems in one shot. They are willing to spend a million dollars … to pave large sections of the roads and say ‘problem solved.’ They act as if there will be no cost to maintain the roads they pave. What happens when they have to fill potholes or repair sections of washed-out paved areas — witness Snake Hill Road? Am I to understand that the money will be there for those purposes but the money to periodically grade the dirt roads will not?”

A third dirt-road defender, Lisa Hunter Rasic, said that dirt roads help to make Garrison the special place that it is. There is real $$ value to that even if it’s not easy to quantify.”

Garrison resident Scott Higbee, offered contrasting views. In a comment on in late December, he praised town officials “for confronting a sensitive, yet very important issue. Many of our town’s dirt roads, including Old Albany Post Road, need to be paved.

Any way the issue is addressed, whether from a cost standpoint, from an environmental standpoint or from a safety standpoint, common sense points to paving. Our town has many needs,” Higbee added. “I and many of my neighbors on Old Albany Post Road would prefer that we pave Old Albany Post Road so that the town can use our tax revenues for other important needs rather than repeatedly maintaining our dirt roads only to watch these dirt roads erode immediately upon the next rainfall.”

Nationally known writer Andy Revkin, another Old Post Road resident, highlighted points to ponder on both sides of the issue.

“I appreciate the budget concerns and — having resided at both ends of Saunders Hill over the last 20 years — I can appreciate the need for change from practices that, in that span, have filled Philipse Brook and the Hoving Home pond with gravel and the air on dry summer days with dust,” he stated in a comment on in November. “And I have experienced the deep frustration that comes with seeing costly drains and labor washed away in the remains of epic storms. In fact, my first instinct is to go for paving. But I also fear that a swift move to asphalt, without a serious consideration of intermediate alternatives and unanticipated consequences, could lead to regrets and — at worst — deaths as speeding cars encounter strolling residents.”

He observed that the Old Road Society had previously consulted Penn State University’s Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies and suggested that “one more round” of review “may make sense — and I can imagine that there are enough residents with concerns that money could be raised for such a review without adding to the town’s budget woes.” Overall, he suggested, “change is clearly needed, but so is a bit more reflection and analysis.”

Shea said that when the Old Road Society commissioned the last Penn State study, the results “came back with a recommendation to pave.”

5 thoughts on “Town Plan for Paving Stirs Dirt Road Dust

  1. Having lived on South Mountain Pass since 1967, I have experienced the charms of a dirt road for a long time. After living through the severe weather of the past decade, however, and contemplating a future where even greater severity is unavoidable, the charms have worn off. I favor paving, perhaps with tar and gravel as topping. I favor it for safety reasons and cost. It isn’t really fair for a few citizens of the town to insist on incurring extra expense to all in order to sustain a “sense of country living” or whatever one calls the charms of dirt roads that have been expressed. No more studies. Get on with it now.

  2. I wonder if any of the anti-paving people have to do any commuting to and from work like the rest of us commoners. Sure, the dirt roads are great if you don’t have to get somewhere in a timely manner, regardless of the weather. It must be nice to have so much leisure to be able live in such a relaxed fashion and not have to worry about getting to a job on time or some other necessity. How many people are we talking about here that don’t want these road sections paved? A dozen? I don’t know. But I do know that the Canopus/Snake Hill corridor is an important east/west corridor from Putnam Valley to Routes 9 and 9D and there are many vehicles that have to travel that way on a daily basis. Years ago the PV highway department paved the very steep part of Canopus Hill just before Albany Post Road (thank goodness!) but even that small, rutted, pot-holed section of APR that’s like a washboard makes for some pretty treacherous driving even if it’s just rained. Forget about snow and ice, it’s almost impossible. I think that some consideration is owed to the majority of people who have to use the road as opposed to the minority who want to pretend it’s still 1813.

    • If Canopus Hill Road is an important corridor for Putnam Valley, it only became this after it was paved by Putnam Valley. I believe that most of us who are living on the dirt roads of Garrison are not looking to create more convenient, faster through roads for surrounding growing communities. We want to preserve what we have, the best way that we can. am a nurse, living off of Old Albany, who has never missed a day due to the dirt roads… I just leave a little earlier.

  3. I agree with Bevis Longstreth concerning the necessity of paving portions of South Mountain Pass. I have also lived on this road for over 40 years. Almost every time we have a heavy rain the westerly end (9D) side of this road washes out to some degree because of the steep grade. The Highway Dept. then comes in, replaces the lost material and regrades the road all of which takes time to perform and is a substantial cost to all of the taxpayers of this town.

    On many occasions sections of South Mountain Pass have washed away completely leaving the residents stranded and with no means of access for an ambulance, fire truck, police officer, fuel supplier or electrical line worker.

    What if a family member becomes ill and the ambulance can’t get to your home? Or if your house is on fire and the fire trucks can’t get to you? On the issue of paving or leaving dirt, each road in the town has to be looked at on an individual basis for the historical value, country charm, cost of maintenance, grade, pollution, school-bus traffic etc. However, the most important concern is and always must be for the health, safety and welfare of the residents living on that road.

  4. What occurred at the Wednesday meeting? I’m a commuter. I travel South Highland, Old Albany Post and Philipse Brook roads five days a week on my way to the Garrison train station. I drive about 15 to 20 miles an hour and I relish the slowness and the time to look at my surroundings and wave hello to neighbors walking their dogs.

    I specifically chose to live in this area because of this environment. It is unique. It is different from so many other areas in Putnam County, the Hudson Valley, New York State and the country that all look the same now.

    I support maintaining the roads as dirt roads, but in a better manner. We can learn from other municipalities and counties about dirt road maintenance. We must improve drainage.

    Please view this important video made by Dmitri Kasterine on this subject.

    Please explore best practices of dirt road maintenance on the rich Center for Environmental Excellence by AASHTO site.

    Before Philipstown decides to pave its dirt roads, we must carefully examine the manner in which it is caring for the roads and compare its practices with the best practices successfully employed by other municipalities.

    Here’s a good manual on dirt-road maintenance from Massachusetts.

    I believe we can protect the health, safety and welfare of residents living on Philipstown’s dirt roads by caring for the roads in a better manner — but not by paving them.

    Additionally, the elephant in the room is that the value of homes on dirt roads is likely higher than the value of homes on Route 9, for example. And of course, this value affects tax revenue.