Shea on South Mountain Pass

Why I feel it is important to take action

By Richard Shea

Philipstown has approximately 30 miles of dirt roads and 30 miles of paved roads. These roads traverse some of the most challenging terrain in Putnam County if not New York state. Most towns and counties in New York state have done away with dirt roads including many upstate communities. Here in Philipstown we recognize that they are part of our heritage while at the same time realizing the demands of modern travel and schedules.

When I was younger Philipstown was a much different place. Many families owned only one car and home deliveries were uncommon, unless we were talking about milk. In the summer many of the dirt roads had a strip of grass growing down the middle. The volume of traffic and the expectations were both much lower. At that time commuting by train was an anomaly.

Today things are quite a bit different. The number of trips per day on all our roads has increased exponentially. The size of the vehicles traveling the roads has also increased, with large delivery trucks crisscrossing every road in town. These things, combined with a noticeable change in weather patterns, have put a strain not only on the roads but the budgets needed to maintain them.

Whenever the subject of paving a section of dirt road is brought to the Town Board one thing is guaranteed: a lot of emotion will also come with it. Locally this is the third rail of politics and makes for some very interesting meetings. Many times these discussions result in no action. This cannot be the case when it comes to the discussion of the small section of hill on South Mountain Pass. I have watched the hill on the 9D side of the pass wash out so many times I have lost count. There have been times when the road has disappeared in its entirety — this despite our best efforts at maintaining the road.

When we talk about dirt roads what we are really discussing is a mixture of aggregates known as item 4. This is a material that is approved for road building. We must now truck the material in from Orange County. This requires many trips using large diesel-powered trucks. It is then spread and graded using large diesel-powered machines.

My point is that we are burning lots of dirty fossil fuel in large expensive vehicles. Once in place, chemicals are added in the form of hardeners and dust control. Many times after heavy rains all this material washes into the adjoining streams not only polluting them with turbidity but filling them up with the combination of dirt and chemicals. This is unacceptable.

Despite all the different ideas that have been tried, from open drainage with large stones to cutoffs to underground piping, eventually the result has often been the same: large quantities of material winding up in the streams.

I will finish with this. Many years ago my mentor Jim Rod of Audubon said that the biggest threat to the brooks and streams was the dirt coming off the roads. Everyone has seen streams that are clogged with road material and the harsh results. During my tenure on the Town Board over the past 14 years we have paved very little, probably less than one mile. The project at South Mountain Pass represents less than 1/3 of a mile. This section of road averages between 10 and 14 percent grade and has been a perennial if not monthly problem.

There have been many claims that there are solutions to the issues. To date many have been tried and none have been successful. This does not mean that we will stop trying to find solutions or that we will be embarking on a program of large-scale paving of all dirt roads. No one wants to see that and it is not necessary. What we do need are solutions to the areas that are the most challenging. To that end we are actively seeking alternatives and will continue.

As for the small section of hill on the South Mountain Pass I am in favor of action. With an investment of over $250,000 dollars in drainage I feel that it is in the best interest of taxpayers and the environment to secure the road by paving that limited section as soon as possible.

Richard Shea is Philipstown supervisor.

8 thoughts on “Shea on South Mountain Pass

  1. This is an extremely cogent and compelling argument, and I am convinced. The blight on the environment alone is reason enough to take the action Richard suggests.

  2. I remember discussing dirt roads with Jim Rod almost 20 years ago, when I first met him during an interview to become a potential member of the Philipstown Conservation Advisory Committee. At the time, his greatest lament was that no one was focusing on keeping material from running off of our Town’s dirt roads and entering streams and other water bodies. The blame was not specifically placed on the existence of our dirt roads as suggested by Richard Shea, Town Supervisor.

    I understand the ecological concerns that are now being brought up, but I am particularly troubled with the process that appears to be taking place in regard to the proposed drainage and paving project at both the Highway Department (HD) and Town Board (TB) levels. I question the rush to vote on this project; what am I missing?

    Let us look at the bigger picture. Approximately 51% of our nation’s roads are unpaved. Many of these roads handle significant daily traffic and high axel loads including industrial usage for mining, petroleum production, and forestry, not to mention residential traffic. There is a science to the sound economic and environmental management of unpaved roads. Philipstown does not adhere to these best practices. The apparent problem is not that South Mountain Pass is unpaved and steep, but rather that we are now facing several decades of gross mismanagement by the (HD) under two different Highway Superintendents and several TBs.

    During this period none of the TBs has ever bothered to thoroughly investigate if best practices were being utilized by the HD. While under current NYS municipal law, HDs are essentially autonomous of their respective municipal governments; but said governments are responsible for reviewing and thus approving HD’s budgets. This allows the TB to have an effective mechanism to control the competency of the HD by granting or denying proposed budgets; this opportunity has been grossly missed.

    A small but growing group of forward thinking towns and municipalities have successfully moved forward with referendums that have converted the position of Highway Superintendent from an elected position to an appointed one. Why? Because believe it or not there are only 3 current qualifications necessary to become a Highway Superintendent in NYS: age 18 or older, being a current town resident, and garnering the majority vote. Imagine if we elected our school superintendents with the same required credentials.

    It is time that we convert the position of Highway Superintendent to an appointed one with mandatory credentials, which would require that applicants have a degree in civil engineering and experience with the maintenance of unpaved roads. If the TB had done this a decade ago, we would not be concerned with the condition, costs, or environmental impact of our dirt roads. I believe in our TB, but it is time that they alter their strategy and promote a referendum that results in positive change for all.

  3. Mr. Galler’s suggestion that the office of Highway Superintendent become an appointed, rather than an elected office is interesting. This would require a permissive referendum, which I believe could be initiated via petition by local residents.

    According to NY State law, however, subsequent to a successful referendum, a five-year contract would have to be established with another municipality to provide maintenance, after which period an appointed Highway Superintendent could take the position.

    Specifically, quoting NYS Town Law Section 20(1)(k), “Town Officers”:

    “Notwithstanding the provisions of any general, special or local law to the contrary, every town which has a contract in force and effect with another municipality for the municipality to provide highway, road and street maintenance and repair for a period of not less than five years may adopt a local law, subject to permissive referendum as provided by article seven of this chapter, not later than July fifteenth of the year prior to which the term of office of the current elected town superintendent of highways shall expire, that the office of the town superintendent of highways shall be abolished. A town which thereafter terminates such a contract shall re-establish the position of town superintendent of highways by local law as an appointive office.”

  4. Thank you, Richard, for your informative article. As a resident of the South Mountain Pass area for 17+ years, I am concerned about this project for several reasons. With all due respect, I differ with some of your assertions, and have some observations and questions, including the following:

    1. Re: amount of road to be paved: In this article, you say that the project at South Mountain Pass (SMP) represents “less than 1/3 of a mile.” However, at the meeting last Wednesday night (June 3), you said the project is 2,600 feet—which is ½ of a mile or 25% of SMP. Ronald Gainer, Philipstown’s consulting engineer is quoted in the paper as saying at that time, that “only about 2,600 feet of road would be paved.” This discrepancy is important, especially as it has been difficult to find out information about the length of road to be paved, and the amount of expense involved. (“Only about” seems to leave room for a larger amount.) What is the actual amount of road that will be paved?

    2. Re: number of times the road has washed out: You say that the area of the road projected for paving has washed out innumerable times, and imply that the road has disappeared in its entirety many times. I remember seeing the road washed out only once—during Hurricane Floyd almost 16 years ago when there was no drainage system in place. After that, drainage pipes were installed. However, my neighbors tell me that the road has washed out twice, the second time when the two drains at the intersection of SMP and High Ridge Road didn’t work, so that when water washed over them, it washed out that section of road.

    3. Re: environmental degradation: You say that the Philipstown Highway Department (HD) has tried various methods, and always with the same result—that significant damage to the road invariably results in the surface materials ending up in the streams. Though not an engineer, I have observed water problems and solutions for 30 years. My belief and position is that proper drainage has not been implemented on this section of road. I believe that if/when proper drainage—and by that I include the proper pitch of the road, proper crown, and the regular maintenance and cleaning out of drainage pipes—the road surface will not wash out and thus, will not adversely impact the streams and environment. To demonstrate my point, consider my private lane, which has three sections, all with different drainage and differing results. One section doesn’t have proper drainage, and the surface of the road is adversely impacted every time it rains. Another sloped section is properly pitched and drained, and little to no surface materials run off into the adjacent drainage ditch, even during heavy downpours. The other section, although flat with no slope, has no drainage, and so it consistently erodes and develops deep potholes.

    4. Re: expense: You say that “With an investment of over $250,000 dollars in drainage,” you feel that it’s best to pave that section of road. As the original amount of project has already doubled, and as that amount does not include paving, and as the amount for paving has not been officially stated, I’m left to conclude that the project budget has quadrupled from its original budget of approximately $125,000, to $500,000 or half a million dollars with the paving—with the “$250,000 for the paving being “unofficial” information. I think transparency on all issues related to this subject is vitally important. Unfortunately, it has often been lacking in this process. As paving is enormously expensive, what is the specific account expected for paving the entire stretch projected to be paved, and where are those monies expected to come from?

    5. Re: safety: In neither this article nor in your recent letter that you emailed me yesterday, do you address safety issues resulting from paving this ½ mile section of road. I am deeply concerned about the increase of speeding vehicles on SMP, which is already a problem. In my opinion, paving further endangers the lives and limbs of our neighbors and visitors on SMP. When considering the prospect of paving, I think the danger to the safety of people’s lives should be taken into serious account.

    6. Re: meeting with Cornell: In your letter to me, you say that “We will be meeting with the head engineer from Cornell University’s highway school this month to discuss other treatments for dirt roads along with a plan presented by the residents.” It sounds as if this meeting will be after the Town Board’s vote on this project. Why would you vote first and meet later, versus meet, discuss, and then vote?

    7. Re: transparency: It appears that the recently installed drainage pipes are designed for paved surface. Is this correct? If so, why has the installment of drainage pipes begun that are tied to a project that has not been vetted and voted on, and the road length doubled and expense quadrupled, before this project has been thoroughly and openly discussed with the community, and before voting has taken place?

    Thank you for your time and attention to this situation. I know we all want to solve this problem.

  5. Mr. Shea’s article is a step in the right direction. However, there is still a great deal of back-bending to appease the small minority of taxpayers who insist on disrupting the lives of the majority who finance and use these public roads. If the people commenting here want to do without running water, electricity and paving they are free to live in whatever fashion they choose on their own property. The town officials are under no obligation to inflict the lifestyle choice of a vocal few on an entire community that comprises thousands of travelers who are forced to pay for and use the dirt roads in question.

  6. Pardon me, but Garrison and Cold Spring have had these same dirt roads for a couple hundred years, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone who chooses to locate themselves there that there will be issues with … where they chose to live. Part of dirt roads’ appeal is that “thousands,” as you say, of people are free to choose more expeditious routes if they find the local history here to be outdated. There is Fishkill etc. with no dirt roads. Lots of other options.

    All points above are well taken, great conversation.

  7. Any one responsible for, or interested in dirt roads should download the following Manual produced by the United States Environmental Protection Agency:

    The Manual is available at:

    The Introduction (Chapter 1) is 10 pages; the entire Manual is 360 pages. In addition to Chapter 1, interested persons might like what they find in the 11 page Appendix 7, containing photos and diagrams of several remediation projects. All documents are in .pdf format, available at the above link.

    This should be required reading for all Town Board members and Highway Dept. management.


    Right now, the debate and discussion about South Mountain Pass are neither about paving nor drainage. It is about proper process … the essential ingredient of good government. That has broken down in the handling of this matter, and we do not know or understand why.

    At the Town Budget Workshop meeting on October 15, 2015, others and I heard the Town Supervisor specifically state that there were three highway department priorities for 2015 – Manitou Station Road, Indian Brook Road culvert and the Avery Road bridge near Indian Brook Road. South Mountain Pass was not a priority. It was also stated that there would be no major paving projects in the budget. Approximately $5,000 was included in the adopted budget for drainage along South Mountain Pass, with the work to be performed in-house by highway department personnel.

    Without any public participation, without consultation with area residents, without outreach to the Old Road Society, at a workshop on March 25, 2015, the Board awarded a contract to Sun-Up Enterprises for $129,876.00 for the construction of 600 feet of drainage work. A video taken at the meeting caught the first discussion that major paving was contemplated.

    At the Town Board meeting on April 9, the Supervisor noted the recently awarded contract and stated we should go “all the way” and also consider “paving that hill.” We appreciate that Councilmember Montgomery cautioned there should be “plenty of public notice.”

    After the meeting on April 9, residents of South Mountain Pass appealed to the Town Supervisor to meet to discuss plans. Despite his promise to do so, this never occurred, even though the residents requested the meeting multiple times.

    On May 22, buried in the Town Board’s agenda that was promoted as the “Cable Contract” meeting, was Agenda #5 –Resolution – Change Order #1, extending the project an additional 600 feet, and including a clause stating “it is anticipated having the portion paved.” Once again, neither the community, area residents nor the Old Road Society was consulted, yet another $120,000 was being committed.

    The Old Road Society alerted the South Mountain Pass residents, many of whom attended the meeting to express their concern. In response, a workshop meeting was scheduled for June 3. At the workshop, good suggestions and positive ideas were presented … all were summarily dismissed. It was apparent that the Town Supervisor was close-minded … arrogant, dismissive and insistent, also attempting to speak for the entire board that “we feel this project should go forward … it is not a surprise … not a new idea.”

    On June 10, at a Town Board meeting where the vote was scheduled to be taken, the Town Supervisor refused to allow area residents to speak any more, only allowing me to speak after he received the agreement of the Board. I stressed that the community had been ignored throughout this process and also questioned how a $5,000, in-house project had morphed into a $250,000 contracted project. I also raised the duplicity of telling us one story in October about projects and paving, only to reverse course a few months later without notice or warning. That’s not good government by anyone’s definition.

    I am genuinely disappointed and upset by the lack of proper community engagement and outreach in this matter. Area residents should have been brought into the planning process as soon as this change was being contemplated.

    Also, once the capital budget has been set in the budget process, how could such a major change in the budget be done without a formal budget amendment, so there could be a discussion of whether this was the best use of funds? Maybe these “extra” funds should have been put to reducing next year’s tax levy. How can the Town Supervisor say … we found extra money, so we’re going to spend it on paving … when there may be better uses, lost because there was no discussion. It’s hard to imagine how a budget adopted in November could so quickly grow a $250,000 plus surplus by January or February, unless the adopted budget did not account for all revenues on hand.

    Councilmembers Nancy Montgomery and Michael Leonard are to be commended for voting against moving forward with the extension of the project at this time. Prudence dictated waiting longer, exploring other options, and trying to build consensus.

    Better planning, proper consultation, good communication could still prevail. Otherwise, much more will erode here than Item 4 on a dirt road … we will witness the erosion of confidence and trust in local government. May that day never come.

    Terry Zaleski, President
    The Old Road Society of Philipstown