Overgrown emergency road unsafe, officials say
By Greg Elias
Nearly four years after labeling it an “egregious safety hazard,” the town of Williston has ordered Pinecrest Village to fix its emergency access road.
Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston issued a zoning violation notice on Feb. 7 requiring the subdivision to clear brush and lay gravel, which could cost the homeowners association more than $10,000. If the problems are not corrected by the end of April, the 81-condiminium development faces a $100-a-day fine.
Town officials said that safety is the paramount concern. Fire Chief Ken Morton said fire trucks would not be able to reach a blaze if the main road is blocked. And he said a second access is especially important in Pinecrest Village because it gives firefighters another angle of attack in the densely packed development.
“In this case, when you have a fire in one unit, it could be not just one building burning, it could be three buildings burning,” Morton said. “In the final analysis, it’s for their own protection.”
Pinecrest Village representatives, while conceding that the emergency road was overgrown, dispute the need to lay new gravel, which could cost thousands of dollars.
“We have no problem with bringing it up to code,” said Valerie Guilmette, president of the Pinecrest Village Association. “But I can’t see us redoing the whole road.”
The association moved quickly following the violation notice, immediately hiring contractors to clear brush blocking the road. Lorayne Lapin, a member of the Pinecrest Village Association’s board, said a fire truck can now navigate the road. “I don’t think there is a safety concern at all,” she said.
The crackdown comes almost four years after Williston’s former zoning administrator issued an informal warning that the development was violating a rule that requires subdivisions with 50 or more units to have two means of access.
“The gross lack of maintenance of the emergency access road appears to be a violation of the project’s subdivision approval as well as an egregious safety hazard,” wrote Scott Gustin in a July 2002 letter to Marian Servidio, Pinecrest Village’s property manager.
That letter came amid a flurry of correspondence between Gustin and Morton, who originally complained the overgrown road was a safety hazard.
In 2003, Morton again wrote to Gustin, saying that though some brush had been cleared, the emergency road was still not wide enough for a fire truck. Gustin then issued a second warning.
“Another year has passed, and again, the emergency access road to Pinecrest Village has not been maintained,” he wrote. “Not once was it plowed over the winter and no vegetation has been cut or cleared all summer.”
But two months later, Morton sent another memo to Gustin suggesting the town had higher priorities.
“After a discussion with my assistant chief we have decided not to involve any more of your time in resolving this matter,” Morton wrote, adding that “there are too many other more important matters.”
Morton, while acknowledging a lack of follow-through, said at the time the town had a smaller staff and was coping with Williston’s rapid development. “There were so many problems,” he said. “You kind of have to pick your battles.”
The warning letter in 2003 apparently ended the town’s enforcement efforts until the emergency access issue was raised during last month’s hearing on a new development next to Pinecrest Village.
Former Selectman Herb Goodrich sought approval for a 14-unit senior housing project. The Development Review Board rejected the plan because it did not include an emergency access. The board reasoned that because the project would share Pinecrest Village’s main access road, it was subject to the emergency road requirement.
But after the vote the board learned that Pinecrest Village did in fact have a second access – the very road that the town now says fails to meet standards. The board has since decided to reconsider its vote on the project.
Meanwhile, Pinecrest Village representatives are scrambling to correct problems with the access road while disputing some of the town’s requirements.
Based on an inspection of the road early this month, the town found seven problems that needed to be corrected. They include blocked access to both ends of the road, gardens planted in the 15-foot-wide right of way and grass instead of gravel covering the road.
Johnston wants those problems corrected by April 30. He has warned Pinecrest Village that it faces fines of up to $100 a day if the issues are not fixed by the deadline.
Servidio responded with a plan for fixing most of the problems. But she wrote that changing the grass-covered road to gravel “would not be acceptable to homeowners.” She asserted the road never had a gravel surface in the first place and noted an engineer certified that the road met town requirements when the development was completed in 1995.
Johnston responded that the plan was not acceptable because it failed to include provisions for periodic maintenance and snow plowing. He said the town’s original approval required a gravel surface while noting the engineer’s inspection did not include the access road.
Converting the grassy road to gravel could be expensive for Pinecrest Village, Guilmette said. She estimated it will cost about $3,000 to correct the other problems; laying gravel could add $10,000 to the tab.
The homeowners association has enough in its reserve fund to cover the cost in either case, Guilmette said. Replenishing the reserve is more problematic. She said homeowners on average already pay $180 a month in association fees.
Johnston said in an interview that he is aware of the financial consequences of his enforcement. “It’s not fun,” he said.
Johnston declined to assess how his predecessor handled the issue. Then he asked and answered his own question.
“Would I have taken a different or stronger action?” he said. “I just have.”