Lawyer urges towns to try waiving paving

GREENPORT–“Wherever possible, old farm roads and country lanes should be retained and reused,” attorney Victoria Polidoro of Rapport Meyers law firm told her audience of nearly 50 highway officials, members of planning and zoning boards and conservation advocates last week. That’s the way rural communities can realize the safety and the esthetic and fiscal benefits of these unique assets.

Ms. Polidoro, who works in municipalities throughout the Hudson Valley, addressed a gathering sponsored by the Columbia Land Conservancy at Columbia-Greene Community College October 1, where she described the legal tools available “to protect, maintain and create” rural roadways.

She said safety is improved due to lower vehicle speeds, and scenery and features like stone walls give each community its own sense of place. Country roads also offer cost benefits and she suggested application of “lower country road standards” where suitable, avoiding expensive paving and curbing with relaxed standards that “allow you to keep gravel or narrow shoulders.”

The Dutchess County Town of Dover previously had a single category for its lightly used roads, designating them as rural/suburban. But the specifications were more suburban than rural, so the town added a “country road” category for low-speed roads that serve a limited number of homes, allowing for “alternative surfaces.”

In Pleasant Valley, also in Dutchess County, the town limits the clearing of vegetation along rural roads to “the minimum extent necessary” and keeps old trees where feasible, subject to safety. “If the highway superintendant says the tree is dangerous” that always takes precedence, Ms. Polidoro said.

When a participant cautioned that fire trucks are getting bigger, Ms. Polidoro advised working with the local fire commissioner on the issue.

She also said that preserving rural roads preserves history. Historic districts mean streets can’t be widened, and that limits the size of buildings. Another tool for protecting rural roads involves use and preservation laws, which “require heavy users to pay for upgrading and repairing,” although she said there is not yet much case law in this area.

Ms. Polidoro recommended that municipalities adopt an “official map,” a document required at the county level, but optional for towns and villages. The map can protect planned routes from being built on, with builders able to request a variance if a road hasn’t been built yet.

Sounding some of the same themes on safety and quality of life, Brian Kehoe of the Dutchess County Planning Department was up next, with the “Complete Streets” approach to transportation planning.

Roads now “serve the needs of cars,” but they should be “scaled to serve the needs of the community … for all of us,” he said. Showing an 1890s Poughkeepsie street scene with trolleys, horses and pedestrians intermingled, he said, “That is a complete street.”

“I see families walking on Fairview Avenue in [Greenport]… and it scares me,” he said. But he acknowledged that it is “complicated” to make a road that serves all needs.

Citing survival statistics, he said that when a vehicle strikes a pedestrian at 20 mph, 90% of the victims survive; at 30 mph, half survive; at 40 mph, only 10% survive. He recommended efforts that “skinny down streets to slow traffic down.”

When a Claverack resident told of unsuccessful attempts to reduce the speed limit on Rt. 23, Mr. Kehoe sympathized. Referring to the state Department of Transportation. he said, “They don’t like reducing speeds, they are about moving traffic.”

An enthusiastic bike rider, Mr. Kehoe gushed over a road shoulder that had been widened to accommodate cyclists, and that elicited a comment from Dean Knox, director of the Columbia County Engineering Department. “Eight or ten years ago we were not paving shoulders,” but now “two to four feet” is more usual, Mr. Knox said. While that enhances safety for walking and biking, it has yielded a “side benefit to the highway structure itself…. It’s worked out well.”

Mr. Kehoe also promoted the health benefits from the physical activity opportunities available to people who live in “walkable neighborhoods,” but he acknowledged that sidewalks are expensive to build and maintain. And participants from Claverack said that not all residents were supportive of sidewalks when surveyed in the past.

He predicted that though Columbia County has very little in the way of public transportation now, someday “there will be enough people here to need a transit system.”

He also mentioned the decision by Amtrak to begin accepting bicycles on its trains. “Hopefully there will be people in Lycra with money falling out of their wallets.”

The series continues Tuesday October 29 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., when Dr. Rebecca Schneider of Cornell University will lead three panelists in a discussion on “Better Road Design & Management.” Topics include the “linear green infrastructure” approach to road-related stormwater management, recent work on culverts and stream crossings, and methods to maintain safety while reducing costs and protecting water quality in the application of road salt.

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