Road ordinance debated

Published 2:06 pm Sunday, March 17, 2019

WINDSOR – The Bertie County Board of Commissioners heard pros and cons here Monday at a scheduled public hearing on a proposed county-wide “Road Safety & Maintenance Ordinance”, but absent a full attendance of Board members, they took no action at this time.

The road issue came before the Board last December when several citizens voiced more concerns about the safety hazards certain water-logged roads in the county present to motor vehicles: students unable to access school buses without standing or walking through the mud, and also challenges to emergency vehicles. The group asked the county to intervene.

Commissioner Ron Wesson stated then the county has limited power when it comes to state roads in Bertie County, and that state statutes don’t give Commissioners much freedom to address concerns like this. That’s when Commissioner John Trent broached the idea of a “Road Safety & Maintenance Ordinance” encompassing private roads, especially if their condition hinders emergency vehicle access; but cautioned that even with such an ordinance, it may not be legally enforceable.

“We’re not talking about a few little mud holes,” Wesson emphasized. “We’re talking about impassable for fire safety and EMS. That’s a whole different animal.”

The Commissioners heard more complaints at subsequent meetings as citizens from Windsor and Lewiston-Woodville came forward with concerns about the safety of their streets, especially as it related to access; and in one case, told of a water department vehicle that needed assistance after getting stuck on a flooded roadway.

The Commissioners considered an ordinance at their Feb. 18 Planning Session to address the needs for better road conditions within the county, including at least one public hearing held for citizen input.

At that meeting, Commissioner Tammy Lee said she had spoken with a member of the UNC School of Government who told her they did not believe the county has the statutory authority to pass this ordinance under the nuisance abatement category. Lee also mentioned a policy adopted in Cleveland County that offers temporary loans to private road owners to fix their roads with the money to be paid back to the county.

Wesson stated that the county has a responsibility to the safety of its citizens, including “seamless access to county services,” adding the protection of citizens should be paramount. He stated that private road owners should take the safety of these roads seriously, and do what is required to ensure safety of residents who live on these roadways.

Commissioner Ernestine Bazemore discussed whether the county could afford to fix these roads, and whether it was reasonable to levy a $1,000 a day fine and place liens against these private road owners.

County Manager Scott Sauer said he hoped a balance could be struck that would make things as fair as possible for all citizens to receive the same access to emergency services. He also offered a list of the most severely damaged roads in the county, most of which had one private road owner, and whose inability to act impacts many adjoining residential owners.

Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Huddleston stated that private road owners need to be informed via a letter with a grace period included, so they would have the ability to attend a public hearing, as well as to move forward in making plans for the road repairs.

Two citizens, one residing on Pierce Lane and the other on Thomasville Lane, both locations off School Road, presented correspondence from area providers (Choanoke Public Transportation, Roanoke Electric, the Bertie Co. Sheriff’s Office) about not being able to reach residences. They also offered photo evidence. The Commissioners told them all resources had been exhausted to address concerns for their respective roads. The citizens said the roads owners have been asked to fix the roads, but financially they were unable to do so.

A motion was made to hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance, and it passed by a 3-2 vote with Trent, vice-chair Greg Atkins, and Wesson voting in favor, while Bazemore and Lee voted against. That put the public hearing on the Commissioners’ agenda for the March 11 meeting.

Trent was not present at Monday’s meeting, where the various Commissioners again re-iterated their positions prior to the public hearing. Trent’s absence indicated a 2-2 split if a vote was held at that time.

Atkins wanted the public to clearly understand the language of the ordinance, particularly the penalties stated in the statutes of $1,000 per day in fines for each day a violation of passable road maintenance was not undertaken.

County Attorney Lloyd Smith told them state statutes say a county has the authority to adopt and enforce ordinances that address issues that adversely affect the health, safety and general welfare of its citizens.

The ordinance, if adopted, would regulate the condition of applicable roadways within the county for the purpose of make them passable for the safe and timely delivery of services to the residents who live on those roadways.

Wesson attempted to make a motion to vote on adoption of the ordinance, but it seemed there was a clear 2-2 split.

Smith reminded the Commissioners that to be adopted at the meeting when the ordinance is first introduced, an ordinance, with exceptions, must receive the approval of all five Commissioners. If not unanimously approved when first introduced, the ordinance may be considered at the next Commissioner’s meeting or at any time within 100 days of its original introduction; and may then receive merely a majority of votes cast, at which time the ordinance would be adopted.

“If Mr. Trent were here and you all voted 0-5, or 5-0, it would be done,” said Smith. “I don’t believe there’s been an ordinance of this type as I recall.”

As the speakers came forward, opinion seemed split with a slight edge to the anti-ordinance crowd. Many simply wanted the ordinance revisited before a final vote would be taken.

“I can’t lead with my heart, I must lead with my head,” said Windsor’s Vivian Clark. “I’m questioning the way you’re going about getting these roads repaired. I don’t think the punishment fits the policy. I have to ask you if you have found the best means. Is Bertie County going into the road-fixing business?”

“All we want is a jugging and a ditch on each side of the road,” stated Terri Pierce, adding that she has witnessed vehicles drive on her property on Pierce Lane to avoid muddy passage. “That’s all we’ve ever asked.”

Lee said she had talked to Department of Transportation about clearing some of the ditch debris in Mrs. Pierce’s neighborhood.

“This is a public nuisance ordinance, not a public safety ordinance,” said Merry Hill resident Jerry Cowand, “I believe this is a right-of-way issue, and you’re turning it into a criminal issue. It needs to be a civil action worked out between two property owners. There’s way too many teeth in this ordinance; you’re basically creating zoning within the county.”

“Fixing the road is far more costly than simple repair,” said Tim Bazemore, Jr., whose family owns rental property off Governor’s Road. “Allow people to fix the roads, but fines and liens are unnecessary.”

Some residents complained their roads were not on a listing of substandard roads and streets, compiled by the county; including Jacob Ryan’s Cypress Lane residence, and whose son requires ambulance service for emergency care.

“Who makes this determination,” he wondered. “It sounds like more needs to be done.”

The Commissioners thanked the citizens for their input, but they did not take a vote on the ordinance.