Homeowners face uncertainty over city’s ruling on 48 private streets
The entrance to Center Court from Center Street in Northampton Wednesday. The street will remain a private way.
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A section of Center Court in downtown Northampton in 2013. Purchase photo reprints »
Center Court in Northampton Wednesday. The street will remain a private way.
JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
King Avenue in Northampton is one of the streets whose status has been under view by the city.
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Jason Benson, a resident at 5 King Ave. in Northampton on his street Thursday afternoon.
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NORTHAMPTON — If anyone knows the history of King Avenue, it’s Ruthann Mahoney.
The 84-year-old, who built a home there some 62 years ago, recalls officials telling her at the time that the city owned the road. Mahoney said the city has undertaken street work twice in the last six decades, including installation of sewer and water lines. And she’s never had to question whether the city would plow and maintain the road in front of her house — it’s something the Department of Public Works has always done.
Those services, however, could be coming to an end for King Avenue residents and many other homeowners throughout the city who live along private streets that, for unexplained reasons, have never been accepted as public ways. By state law, the city cannot plow and maintain private ways, as it has done for years, with public money. As a result, the Board of Public Works is nearing completion of an ambitious yearlong effort to determine which of the roughly four dozen private streets should become public and which should remain private. Those streets deemed public will continue to receive city services, while those that the city won’t accept will be on their own for plowing and other road maintenance.
King Avenue, at least for now, is one of more than a dozen streets that the BPW will not recommend the City Council accept as public ways. Another 22 streets are being recommended to become public and decisions have yet to be made on seven streets.
The board’s decision about King Avenue surprises Mahoney and her neighbors.
“Having paid taxes on this property for 76 years, I find their recommendation is unjust,” Mahoney told the council last month. She added, “King Avenue is one of the better streets in the city and I really plead with you to accept this as a city street.”
BPW Chairman Terry Culhane said the board is doing everything it can to find a solution to allow the city to continue these services. That’s why the board has made it clear that it wants to circle back and examine each of its no votes, including King Avenue. Some of those votes happened early in the analysis, before the board realized that its criteria might not work in every street examination.
“We realize that we’ve become more flexible,” Culhane said. “I don’t think anybody wants to force residents to have to figure out how to plow their own streets.”
Jason Benson, who lives at 5 King Ave., said he’s optimistic the board will reconsider its vote given that the city owns utilities in the road and has maintained it for years, albeit with money he pays in property taxes.
“Maybe this is too simple, but if it has been treated as a road and the residents believe that it’s a road, then it’s a road,” Benson said. “A layman can look at this street and see that it’s a road. It’s not a driveway.”
Like many of the 470 residents who live on the streets in question, Benson said he and his wife were not told King Avenue was a private way when they bought the house. “It was a big deal to us, as it would be to any homeowner,” he said. “The homeowners are left in the lurch right now.”
Another resident hoping the board will change its mind is Lilly Gaev, who owns two parcels on Center Court downtown. She believes the city should continue to provide services such as plowing and a safe roadway in exchange for the taxes that property owners pay. Center Court is in treacherous shape and she fears for the safety of the many pedestrians and motorists who use it.
“We really deserve it because it is kind of absurd to allow a downtown commercial, historic and unique city neighborhood to remain a private way in this day and age,” Gaev said.
She acknowledges the odd-shaped street is non-conforming in many ways, calling it a “hornet’s nest” for the city to deal with. In many respects, becoming a public way might work against property owners, she said.
“I’m starting to have second thoughts myself because of how weird the street is,” Gaev said. “Giving the city enforcement power might not be the best thing. There might be advantages to being private.”
Ballot question tabled
Meantime, a recent proposal asking voters to OK the use of public money to plow and maintain the city’s private ways likely does not have the support to move forward.
Such a ballot initiative, if approved, would save the city more than $100,000 on survey, legal and other fees required to make the 30-plus private streets public. It also would have prevented officials having to tell many homeowners on those rejected streets that they are on their own for plowing and other maintenance.
But there are no guarantees that voters would approve such a measure. DPW Director Edward S. Huntley said even if they did, there are too many unanswered questions surrounding the roughly 45 private streets, chief among them easement issues surrounding city utilities in many of the streets.
Either way, Huntley said, the city will likely end up paying to have the streets surveyed, whether it’s part of the public way process or to clear up easements.
“If we don’t take many of these as public ways, the city does not have easements for utilities,” Huntley said.
The DPW has nearly spent all of the $23,800 the council previously gave to get the determination process started. Work on each street is expected to cost at least $3,000. By comparison, the city spends about 2 percent of its snow and ice budget, or some $15,000 a year, to plow the 45 streets.
His office recommends that the city move ahead to accept the private streets that qualify as public ways, rather than keeping them private, but getting special permission from voters to plow and maintain them with public funds as the ballot initiative would do.
“It clears up any ambiguities that are in these private ways,” Huntley said.
The BPW/City Council Conference Committee discussed the ballot question earlier this month and will likely decide next month to send it back to the council without a recommendation, effectively killing it, said City Council Vice President Jesse M. Adams, a member of the conference committee.
In the end, most of the committee was swayed by DPW arguments to move ahead with the street acceptance process given that the ballot initiative was losing steam.
As Adams noted, even if the ballot initiative passed, “it doesn’t answer other questions about easements and larger projects.”
Committee members were also cognizant that property owners whose homes abut these streets would not have time to line up plowing contracts for this winter should the ballot initiative fail. Many of the streets have already been through the BPW’s public hearing process and are being recommended for approval as public ways.
There are a few other advantages to moving ahead with the conversion process. In a memo to the conference committee, Culhane said the changes will allow the city to install proper signs along these streets and make it easier to enforce parking regulations.
Folding some three miles of streets under city control, as is being discussed, will also increase the amount of so-called Chapter 90 money the city receives from the state for road projects by about $15,000 a year.
“Viewed over a 10-year period, the additional Chapter 90 money will amount to $150,000. It would be overly simplistic to assert that this will pay for the upfront survey and legal expenses, but it will certainly help,” Culhane wrote.
Not all of the streets approved to become public ways will be surveyed and accepted by the council before the first snow flies this fall. In these cases, the city intends to continue plowing these streets until decisions are made.
For streets that stay private, the city would no longer plow or and perform other road maintenance. That responsibility would revert to the homeowners who live on those streets.
Homeowners whose streets remain private ways have the right to petition the council to become a public way, which they can do at any time.