Residents, township battle over road maintenance

One mile of gravel road in Udolpho Township is causing a big divide between a group of homeowners and the township board.

Property owners in Cedar River Estates along 304th Street, 306th Street and 538th Avenue asked the county board to intervene and force Udolpho Township to begin maintaining their roads with winter plowing and spring grading.

The township board is arguing the roads in the subdivision are private driveways the township doesn’t have to maintain based on its policies.

The roads were built or redone as part of work at Cedar River Estate, a subdivision developed in the last decade.

The county board didn’t make a decision Tuesday and opted to table the issue until its next board meeting Nov. 22.

Udolpho Township currently maintains about 36 miles of road — all gravel — for about 170 homes. Craig Byram, the attorney representing the homeowners, said that averages to about four homes per mile — the same number of homes in question in the Cedar River Estates.

“It is at or above the density of any other road in the township,” Byram said. “So I would argue it deserves to be maintained at or above any other township road.”

The township’s attorney, Troy Gilchrist, argued the impassable roads are not the fault of the township, because the roads were never its responsibility. The roads never met the township’s criteria for taking on new roads, he said.

“There is no neglect in this case,” he said. “These roads have not become impassable through neglect of the township. The township has no legal duty or obligation to maintain these roads.”

Byram said the question boils down to weighing the cost of maintaining the roads and the burden on the property owners.

“Why is it that these particular four homes have been essentially singled out and set aside and told under no circumstances will these roads ever be maintained,” Byram said.

Byram argued these homeowners deserve the same maintenance of other tax paying property owners. Byram said the properties are producing more for property taxes now than when the properties were undeveloped. For example, one property’s taxes are now $1,800 a year and were about $190 undeveloped.

“I would say there are sufficient tax dollars there to make sure that that short road is maintained like all other roads in that township,” he said.

Gilchrist said his clients made it clear to the properties’ developer that the roads wouldn’t be maintained until there was a significant need.

“It’s really up to the town board to decide when they’re going to open and maintain it,” he said.

Gilchrist said townships have to be cautious because they must keep maintaining the roads indefinitely once it picks them up.

“Once you’re in, you’re in forever,” he said.

The developer asked the township board to maintain the roads, but officials said the development didn’t have enough homes.

In response to the homeowners’ requests, the township board drafted a resolution to outline its criteria of when it will take over new roads in subdivisions. However, those roads don’t meet the standards, according to the board.

“They’ve set up a policy to protect their local taxpayers,” Gilchrist said.

However, county commissioners questioned why the written document was drafted in 2009 — long after the group of home owners first voiced their concerns, not before.

“If that was in place when you platted this, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Commissioner Ray Tucker said.

Homeowners at the properties said the township’s unwillingness to maintain the roads is affecting their safety and their abilities to do their jobs.

Kathleen Oswald said the lack of road maintenance is keeping the homeowners from their work, which is translating to a public safety issue.

Oswald argued ambulance or fire officials would be hard pressed to respond to an emergency after a snow storm.

“Our very lives and our very property is in danger,” she said.

Oswald said it took her less than a month after she bought the property to realize the township wouldn’t be maintaining her property.

Oswald said township officials said she couldn’t block the road in any way because it was public, but that it would not be maintained because she was the only one who lived on the end of the road.

Oswald said she needs to get to work as an anesthesia provider at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, and she has to be at work immediately if she’s called in.

“If I can’t get to the emergency room in time, I can’t take care of you,” she said.

Oswald also said her children have to walk, often on dark roads, to the bus stop, because the bus won’t drive down her road.

However, a homeowner siding with the township said buses often are unable to drive down certain gravel roads to protect the safety of other students, especially on snow-pact roads.

When the roads aren’t plowed, homeowner Casey Hatch agreed it’s difficult to get past the drifts.

“The drifts are to the point that you can’t get into town,” he said.

Hatch also said many of the homeowners are paying double for snow removal: the money on their taxes and extra for a private party to plow.

Joe Dolan, an Austin Utilities Worker, said he often has to leave very early to help his wife, who is a teacher, get to her students in Austin.

“A lot of times, I’ll take her in quite early so we know we can get there,” he said.

Jason Ressler, a sheriff’s deputy in Mower County, said there’s no way his Crown Victoria squad car can make it through the drifts after some storms, which makes it difficult for him to get to calls.

“It can make things real difficult to say the least,” he said.

Linn Thoen, who lives in rural Blooming Prairie, said the township spent more than $88,000 on gravel and rock in 2010. They also spent more than $3,000 mowing ditches.

Thoen said difficulties with snow and gravel roads are a fact of life for rural residents.

“The township only has so much money to do these roads,” he said. “And I think if some people are in such an important position in town, you should live in town. When you live in the country, you can’t get out whenever you want.”

He noted the township only places new gravel on a third of the township’s roads each year.

“It’s a limited procedure for us,” he added. “We don’t have three, four, five plow trucks and sanders.”

The county board also expressed concern over public safety, which Chairman Tim Gabrielson said has to be the county’s first concern.

“If we have a road that will not be plowed, I don’t think that’s a safe environment,” he said.

Reinartz said the issue could open up the township for a major lawsuit if law enforcement wasn’t able to properly respond.

Gilchrist said a lawsuit would not be a problem because the roads in question are private drives.

“The township doesn’t have an obligation to maintain a private driveway,” Gilchrist said. “It doesn’t have an obligation to maintain this road either.”

It seems the deciding factor will be costs and how much of a hardship maintaining the roads will cause for the county. Commissioners asked the township board for any information it can provide on its costs of gravel and snow removal.

“It all boils down to the costs,” Tucker said.

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