WILMINGTON, MA — According to the town’s Department of Public Works, Wilmington currently has more than 200 unaccepted private ways comprising over 30 miles of roadway.
“Many of these private ways were constructed to a lesser standard than streets constructed through the current Subdivision Control Law,” explains DPW Director Mike Woods and Town Engineer Paul Alunni in a memo to the Board of Selectmen.
“Some private ways were constructed with a minimal right of way, no sidewalks, inadequate drainage infrastructure, and surfacing of varying grade (i.e. dirt, gravel, partially paved, or paved traveled ways),” says Woods.
The town authorized a Committee on Unaccepted Ways to “address the Town of Wilmington’s problem of unaccepted ways” back in April 1994.
The Committee, which issued its final report in April 1997, identified the following primary issues, all of which seem to still be applicable 20+ years later:
- Residents look to the Town for repair or reconstruction of streets that were not constructed properly or those that, after many years, have deteriorated to a poor condition of “mud and ruts” in the winter and spring and “dust and ruts” in the summer. If the way is not accepted, the repair cannot be made.
- New residents to the Town request sidewalks on their streets for the safety of their children, only to find out that the street is not an accepted way and the improvement cannot be made.
- Tax equity — Residents living on unaccepted ways pay the same tax rates as residents on accepted ways.
- There is an expectation on the part of many that the Town, by allowing building and development to occur, should also be responsible for the construction of appropriate infrastructure.
Additional noteworthy issues raised in the report include:
- Unpaved ways in poor condition increase the wear and tear on town maintenance (plowing) equipment.
- Residents complain that they just bought a new home on a paved road with no indication from anyone that the street was an unaccepted way and of lesser status than others in town.
- Conditions on some of the streets in Town “resemble those of third world nations.”
“It’s a question that many town offices get –‘Why can’t my road be constructed’?” acknowledges Town Manager Jeff Hull. “There’s a difference between public ways and unaccepted ways. [Public ways] have gone through Planning Board review; meet certain requirements regarding drainage, road width, etc.; meet the specifications of the Town Engineer; and are recommended and then brought forward for a public vote at Town Meeting.”
“If Town Meeting accepts the roadway, then it becomes public and is owned by the town. The Town is responsible for maintaining it,” continues Hull. “Private ways, on the other hand, are just that — they’re owned by the abutting property owners, who have certain rights to the center of the road.”
Unaccepted Private ways are supposed to receive the same town services as public ways — trash pick-up, fire protection, police protection, snow plowing, school buses, and minor repairs (e.g., potholes) for safety of passage. The key difference is the town will not conduct major repairs/reconstruction (including sidewalks) to unaccepted private ways.
Who Should Pay The Cost Of Getting Unaccepted Ways Accepted?
“To advance through the Street Acceptance process (from Selectmen to Planning Board to Public Hearing to Town Meeting), there must be a UNANIMOUS grant of property rights from the private land owners on unaccepted ways [who generally own the land to the centerline of the road] to the Town,” explains DPW Director Mike Woods. “The high costs associated with document preparation and construction of improvements necessary for Street Acceptance have become a deterrent to garner unanimous support amongst residents along the private way.”
These high costs include:
- Preparation of a survey (showing actual property boundaries and street lines) and site design plan for roadway improvements
- Title work (establishing names of all current owners, mortgages, liens and proof of ownership) and deed or instrument write-up by an attorney
“All of these soft cost expenses incurred by the affected land owners… are incurred at their own risk, even if the Town doesn’t vote to accept the Public Way,” added Woods. The land owners would wait until passage a Town Meeting before beginning to fund construction.
By law, the town is not allowed to spend public funds for “the construction, repair or reconstruction of non-public unaccepted ways.” Town Manager Jeff Hull, while sympathetic towards those who live on unaccepted ways seeking roadway and sidewalk improvements, notes the Town must follow the law — just like how it can’t use tax dollars to repave a resident’s private driveway, it can’t use tax dollars to reconstruct a private unaccepted way.
The Town can, however, undertake the Street Acceptance process itself and take responsibility for the above described costs for each unaccepted private way. The town can bear the soft costs, go through the same process homeowners would go through (Selectmen to Planning Board to Public Hearing to Town Meeting), and – if approved at Town Meeting – then fund the hard costs to make improvements to the street.
In 1997, the Town Engineer developed a preliminary cost estimate for the soft costs and hard costs related to construction associated with the improvements and acceptance of every unaccepted private way in Wilmington if the process was undertaken solely by the Town.
“The report states the cost to the Town would be approximately $9 million,” says Woods. “Considering this estimate is 20+ years old, the road inventory and assessment would need to be updated, and a new estimate generated that’s reflective of current costs for labor and materials, and compliance with local, state and federal standards.”
The Committee from the 1990’s suggested the town take a hybrid approach, where the affected homeowners would bear the brunt of the costs, but the town would chip in and cover at least 10% of expenses.
“The Town should establish a Town participatory betterment program for the acceptance of currently unaccepted ways,” read the report. “Town participation to be at least 10% of the cost. Higher percentage Town participation will be determined on a case by case basis based on the general benefit to the town from the improvement.”
Will This Issue Finally Begin To Be Addressed On A Large Scale?
This is an issue we should take a look at moving forward,” Town Manager Jeff Hull told Selectmen.
“It’s alamaring we have over 30 miles of unaccepted roads in town,” responded Selectman Ed Loud. “I would like to come up with a plan where the town could put forward some of these streets on a yearly basis to get them accepted… Let’s come up with some plan to peck away at this list on a yearly basis to get these roads accepted and up to snuff.”
No other Selectman offered comments in the moment, but look for the issue to be revisited at a future meeting where a full discussion amongst the board will take place.
In the meantime, if you live on an unaccepted way and would like the town to develop some sort of plan to address the issues you’re facing, the Town Manager and each Selectman can be reached by filling out this online contact form.
UPDATE: Not sure of the status of your street? Here is a list of all of Wilmington’s accepted streets, as of 2016.
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