Hope to Improve Private Roads

    East Hampton Town’s first attempt to create a road improvement district, taxing residents of certain subdivisions to pay for improving their roads so that they can be taken into the town highway system, is proceeding, though not without some dissension.
    At a town board hearing last Thursday, residents of the area in question, including such streets as Wheelock Walk, Mulford Avenue, and Barnes Avenue in Northwest, generally supported the plan, which would solve a longstanding problem: the Highway Department’s inability to plow, fix, or maintain private roads, leaving residents dealing with potholes or inches of snow.
    A system under which the owners of lots being developed have paid a fee into a fund used to grade and pave subdivision roads bit by bit, until they reach standards that allow them to become town public roads, was developed decades ago under the town’s urban renewal law, but has failed to work as envisioned.
    Town boards in recent years have been inundated by complaints from residents expecting the same services provided to taxpayers who live on public roads. Until a fairly recent change in state law, however, the town was unable to levy a tax such as the one now proposed.
    For the area in question, the town intends to issue bonds for the $915,000 cost and tax each lot owner in each of the next 15 years to recoup the money. Owners of unimproved lots will be assessed at $1,731 a year, while those with improved lots, who have already paid some fees into the old road-improvement system, will be taxed $288 a year.
    “The cost to me will be horrendous,” Henry Dittmer told the town board. Mr. Dittmer has owned hundreds of “slivers” of land — portions of building lots that must be assembled according to the town’s urban renewal map in order to create a buildable lot — since the 1960s.
    “It will force me to sell,” he said, resulting in numerous new houses, and more children in the school district, all at once.
    All affected property owners are to  vote on the proposed road improvement district. They will have the ultimate say on whether the project proceeds.
    Each lot owner will have just one vote, regardless of their holdings, said John Jilnicki, the town attorney. Mr. Dittmer said that was unfair, and that he should be given more of a say. “I own most of the vacant property on the map,” he said, adding that he had estimated the cost to him of the road-improvement taxes based on the number of individual slivers of land he owns. However, Mr. Jilnicki said, the cost assessment provided by the town to property owners was per buildable lot.
    Supervisor Bill Wilkinson suggested that the town send a letter to each owner specifying their individual assessment.  
    Mr. Dittmer also questioned why the cost of bringing roads into the public system should not be borne by all of the town’s taxpayers. That, said Mr. Jilnicki, is prohibited by state law.
    David Buda, who lives outside the proposed district, also questioned the fairness of the procedure. “I have a problem with assessing any tax to the owner of a lot who has paid a full [fee] to obtain a building permit, or whose predecessor has paid a full [fee],” he said. In other instances, he added, the town pays for a project that benefits only some taxpayers. As the roads will be used by everyone, he said, the cost of bringing them up to public standards should be spread townwide. Mr. Buda also called it a “serious deficiency” that the town had not provided each property owner in the proposed district with the specific cost to them.
    Other speakers at the hearing who live within the proposed tax district applauded the board for moving ahead.