Deerfield residents object to discontinued maintenance on Steam Mill Road

  • The more rustic part of Steam Mill Road in Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The beginning of Steam Mill Road in Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2021 12:07:41 PM

DEERFIELD — Residents of Steam Mill Road voiced disagreement this week with the Select Board’s recent vote to discontinue maintenance on the road. The vote came following an opinion from town counsel.

Steam Mill Road residents received a notification after the Select Board voted on Sept. 22 to discontinue maintenance of the road beyond the accepted public layout. In November 1951, the board laid out the accepted public layout of the road, which was accepted by residents at 1952’s Town Meeting. An unknown owner owns much of Steam Mill Road and the town has provided plowing and minor maintenance for years beyond the public layout, but the board said it cannot use public funds to maintain a private way.

The town had been maintaining the road up to 60 Steam Mill Road prior to the board’s vote, but now the town will only maintain up to 41 Steam Mill Road. Residents of six houses will be impacted by the change.

Town Counsel Lisa Mead, of Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC, wrote in an opinion that the town is not required to maintain the road beyond the accepted layout of 1952. The opinion can be viewed on page 20 in the meeting’s packet online at bit.ly/3mOUDUH.

“Notwithstanding the fact that the town undertook certain incidental maintenance of the accepted portion of the roadway,” Mead wrote, “the town has no obligation to undertake any further maintenance or work or even plowing of the unaccepted portion of Steam Mill Road.”

Select Board members said the issue is not that they don’t want to maintain the road; however, if they maintain one private way in town, then other residents will be asking them to maintain their private roads as well.

Steam Mill Road resident Jason Billings disagreed with Mead’s legal opinion and said a report he commissioned from Easthampton-based land surveyors Holmberg and Howe Inc. proved the town had accepted the road as a public way back in the 1700s. He claimed the report shows documents held at Historic Deerfield prove the town had accepted the entire road as a public way long before the 1952 Town Meeting.

“In the 1740s, that road was laid out lawfully, legally and correctly by the town,” Billings said. “There is a layout, it’s lawful and legal, even though its looks different. … It pulls the same lawful, legal weight in court that the new documents do.”

Billings continued, saying he could point Mead to “experts at a higher level who understand this clearly.” He and other residents then voiced their displeasure with Mead’s opinion and asked what they can do to get a new attorney.

“(Counsel) is providing information above her expertise level,” Billings said. “How do we get a new attorney? Do we vote on this? … The town attorney is disregarding it at the taxpayers’ expense, us taxpayers would have to do something about that.”

Mead, who has served in several high-level municipal positions, has extensive experience in local land litigation, according to her profile on Mead, Talerman & Costa’s website.

Select Board Chairman David Wolfram said he understands the extreme frustration residents are feeling, but that the Holmberg and Howe report is irrelevant to him and the board needs to stick with Mead’s opinion.

“The report doesn’t mean anything to me,” Wolfram said. “I don’t think you know the expertise level of the attorney. You may not agree with her opinion and that is your right, but we are bound by what we are told.”

The Select Board encouraged the residents to write down and share any questions they have about Steam Mill Road with the board, which will in turn share the questions with Mead.

Billings said in an interview that the road was added to the town layout in the 18th century and he feels town officials are using Mead’s opinion to brush aside residents’ concerns.

“It was legally and lawfully prescribed,” Billings said outside the meeting. “The town is hiding behind an attorney.”

Other residents said the town has been using funds to maintain the road for more than half a century and it should continue to maintain the road as it has done.

“I think 50 years of maintenance is proof enough,” said Brett Gewanter, a resident of Steam Mill Road. “I don’t think anyone in this room is looking for a paved blacktop road.”

Select Board member Carolyn Shores Ness said the town is trying to find a way to maintain the “status quo” and still provide some maintenance to the road in some form.

“I am very sympathetic with everybody, however, we were advised to use the 1952 layout because we can’t use taxpayer money on a private way,” Shores Ness said. “I would like to see some resolution some way.”

Shores Ness said the board will work with Mead to find a solution, but until then, the road will remain a private way.

“We hope to resolve this before the snow flies,” Shores Ness said.

There is another way the residents of Steam Mill Road could designate the road as a public way and receive regular maintenance.

Shores Ness said the matter could possibly be taken to land court, but the town is hoping to come up with a solution before that happens.

“Its complicated to come up with a solution,” she said. “I don’t know what the resolution is gonna be, but hopefully people won’t be too distressed.”

Town Administrator Kayce Warren said the road needs to be brought up to subdivision specifications. Then residents would have to approach the Select Board and Planning Board with a proposed public layout, which would then be put to a vote at Town Meeting following a public hearing process.

That process, however, will be quite expensive because the road needs extensive upgrades to meet public code.

“It’s a lot of work,” Shores Ness said after the meeting. “It would be several million dollars.”




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