A Little Piece Of Heaven With Hellish Road To Get There

July 19, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

The forested, hilly land off Henryton Road where Shirley Collier and her neighbors live is wild and wonderful, but it's in Howard County, not West Virginia, and residents want government help to improve the half-mile unpaved private road that their developer installed three decades ago.

But county officials fear that relaxing the laws on private road conversions for Collier's community would bring dozens more expensive requests.

"It's our little piece of heaven out here," said Collier, a 23-year resident. "People are here to stay, but it's gotten to the stage where our safety is at risk."

"In winter it's pure hell. We've had people stuck sideways in ditches," said Wayne Jacober, who lives with his wife, Liz, and their family near the end of the gravel drive.

School buses are not driven on the road because there's no way to turn around, and ruts trap snow and water that turn into ice that lingers for weeks, residents said.

"It's like a toboggan run," said Collier, 55, who with her husband, Tom, lives in a log cabin surrounded by woods at the top of the long entry road. Residents worry that emergency equipment could not make it in icy conditions.

"Cars going down have minimal control, and children may be walking up from the school bus," said Lew Zitzman, 67, a federal retiree who has lived along the road since his home was built in 1977.

"Coming up, you have to go at top speed to make it," he said. If the car falters, "you'll be backing down an icy hill all the way."

The 20-home development is called a "Macgill subdivision" because of a 1975 court decision by Circuit Judge James Macgill that declared new subdivision regulations adopted in a County Council resolution technically illegal. In the 18 months it took to readopt the regulations, developers were able to cut costs by building cheaper private roads that were otherwise not allowed, said former county planning director Joseph Rutter. The county has dozens of similar rural driveways, he said.

But to convert a private road into a public one, county law requires unanimous agreement among residents and their payment of two-thirds of the construction costs.

Henryton residents who paid $10,000 to $15,000 for their lots in the late 1970s say the price to rebuild the road is more than $750,000 and that some cannot afford it, even under the 30-year repayment plan offered by the county.

"There's a reason this type of neighborhood is not legal anymore," Zitzman said.

Charles Horner, 64, a retired neighbor who with Zitzman tries to keep the road clear, moved in about the same time. They say the developer's promises to improve the road were not carried out.

"It was more or less a handshake and good will," Horner said. Their developer, one of three who prepared the lots for sale, said he would build a better road when three lots sold. He never did.

The subdivision backs up to Patapsco State Park, off a dead-end section of Henryton Road that once led to the old Henryton State Hospital in Carroll County. Tropical Storm Agnes cut the road in 1972 by washing out the bridge across the Patapsco River.

Collier can watch deer feeding from the large windows in an addition that serves as her office. She loves the place, she said, except for the road - the only way in and out. Residents' efforts over the past two decades to improve the road have failed, she and neighbors said.

Horner said paving the road on their own without making it a public road would create new problems because maintaining a paved road would be much more costly than dumping more crushed stone, as is now done.

As time has passed and residents age, it's become harder each year to get unanimous agreement on anything, he said. Meanwhile, worries grow about emergency access.

"What if my husband had a heart attack?" Collier said.

Horner said a neighbor's child had an epileptic seizure during an icy spell and her parents had to put her in the car and take her down to the paved road for pickup by an emergency vehicle.

Members of the group attended Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's annual town meeting in Ellicott City on July 8 to ask for help from the county, but they got no promises.

Collier said her group wants the county to change the rule that requires unanimous consent to make a private road public. But Collier said she believes that if the price could be reduced, she could get all 20 residents to agree.

County officials are sympathetic, but are fearful of setting a precedent.

"There are spots like that all over Howard County," said James Irvin, the county's public works director. "It's a tough question."

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