2018-07-13 / Front Page

City may tear up part of ‘paper street’

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A proposal to accept a so-called “paper street” in the Ligonia neighborhood as a public way was waylaid when it was moved instead to bulldoze a portion of the road and block access to it from Lincoln Avenue.

That motion, made at a Tuesday, July 10 meeting by District 3 Councilor Eben Rose, was motivated, in part, by the fact that the road was paved in 2012, even though it does not belong to South Portland.

“How is it that a street that we didn’t and still don’t own was paved when so many people have been begging for their streets to be repaved for so many, many years now?” asked District 5 Councilor Adrian Dowling. “I have questions about that.”

“It had been dirt forever. There’s got to be some explanation,” said at-large Councilor Maxine Beecher.

However, according to Public Works Director Doug Howard, there is, in fact, no explanation to be had.

Howard, a former public works employee who returned to take on the city’s top road job in 2012, said the 240-foot-long section of Lawn Avenue that connects its former dead end to Lincoln Street was paved in August 2013.

“It was done not under my direction, but I was director at the time it happened,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of phone calls to find out how it happened because, to be honest with you – and I’m not trying to defer any responsibility here – I was actually on vacation when they decided to pave it.

“It was not part of any paving program,” Howard said. “It was done in-house at very minimal cost.”

Howard said that according to a road supervisor who has since retired – another foreman likely involved in the decision has since died – the unbuilt section of road was most likely paved because the city had maintained it as a dirt road for decades, plowing it in winter and hauling in gravel to regrade it in summer. Paving the short section was apparently deemed a less costly long-term solution to the regular grading, Howard said.

Howard did not say exactly how much the job cost, but said the work was done in a single day.

That Lawn Avenue was up for discussion at all stems from a September workshop at which City Planner Tex Haeuser suggested a resolution for 13 of 80 paper streets in South Portland – streets laid out as part of subdivision plans that date as far back as the late 19th century, but never actually built or, in most cases, formally accepted or owned by the city.

According to a 2013 article by Dale McGarrigle in the Maine Townsman – the monthly publication of the Maine Municipal Association – “From the date of recording of a subdivision plan in the registry (of deeds), the public acquires a right of ‘incipient dedication,’ which means that the municipality has a right to accept the paper street, once built (usually to town standards) as a town way.”

McGarrigle wrote that Maine had no laws governing subdivisions until 1971. In 1987 the legislature added a rule stating that, as of Sept. 29, 1997, municipalities would automatically lose the right to ever accept these phantom streets as public ways unless they acted specifically to declare a continued interest in them.

In South Portland, several paper streets have been retained solely to act as utility corridors, or as drainage areas, with no intention to build the street.

In 1997, the South Portland City Council voted to continue its ‘incipient rights” in 80 unbuilt roads then on the books. In 2017, the 20-year call for dibs came around again, and the council voted to walk away from 13 paper streets, while extending its interest in the rest to September 2037.

However, baring a change in state law, that will be the final chance to kick the can down the road. Although in most cases, the original developers and owners of these streets are not known, if they’re even still living, the city will have to decide by 2037 to build, own or abandon each of its 66 remaining paper streets.

Although 2037 is a long way off, several councilors expressed frustration during the most recent go-round in September because the vote was not conducted until weeks before a deadline to extend interest or lose all rights. The council therefore called on a task force to begin working out a final resolution to each paper street, with recommendations due by December 31, 2020.

According to City Manager Scott Morelli, that group, which includes representatives of the city’s planning and development, water resource protection, and public works offices, as well as the fire and police departments, held its first meeting in February.

The group decided to tackle Lawn Avenue first, Morelli said, because it had garnered the most feedback from abutters during the Sept. 6 council workshop.

The recommendation before the council July 10, was to go ahead and accept the private-but-paved section of Lawn Avenue from its dogleg to Lincoln Street as a public road. However, residents asked that it be made one-way and that a speed bump of some kind be installed, given its narrowness at 40 feet wide.

The road, which connects Lincoln Street to Church Street, was laid out in April 1920 as part of the Lincoln Heights subdivision then owned by A. H. Chapman Land Co. Originally, it ran 766 feet from Church Street then turned 90 degrees to Lincoln Street. The section from the turn to Lincoln was labeled “Allston Street” on the original plan.

While the working group advised the city accept Allston Street as part of Lawn Avenue, it agreed that South Portland should abandon interest in another short paper street that ran off Allston Street and dead-ended in the back yards of homes at 36 and 40 Curtis St.

“This way does not function as a street nor does it provide necessary access or frontage for any property,” Haeuser wrote to Morelli in a May 22 memo.

Although Jisel Lopez has an address on Lincoln Street, her driveway is on the Allston Street section of Lawn Avenue. The road, she said, even newly paved, does not come close to meeting city specs for a public road.

“At its narrowest, the road is under 14 feet across,” she said. “Two cars cannot pass each other on the road and, with private property on one side and bushes on the other there’s really no space for pulling over. It’s even worse in the wintertime.

“Visibility is even worse pulling out onto Lincoln Street,” Lopez added. “Public works has actually installed a mirror in the tree across the street because their plow guys cannot see to pulling out (onto Lincoln Street) in the wintertime.”

Lopez also said public works put up a Lawn Avenue street sign in 2016 at the intersection of the Allston Street paper road with Lincoln Street. This she said, has increased traffic on the narrow way “10-fold,” an even greater impact than when it was paved.

Lopez said Haeuser, in 2017, did not return emails or phone calls, even after allegedly saying he would consult with the city’s contracted engineering firm on a solution. She never heard back from Haeuser until this past April, she said, when invited to a neighborhood meeting, at which Haeuser said his verdict was what it was, to go ahead and accept Allston Street as a public extension of Lawn Avenue.

“No explanation was given. We again expressed our concerns. He did not respond,” Lopez said.

Police Chief Ed Googins agreed to a traffic count, dispatching Sgt. Adam Howard from May 1-7. During that time, Howard counted an average of 135 cars per day on Lawn Avenue, registering an average speed of 12.9 mph, although one vehicle was clocked at 29 mph. Because of its short length, no speeds could be registered on the Allston Street section of Lawn Avenue, Googins said.

“It only takes one vehicle for a collision,” Lopez said. “Whether you have 10 or 100 cars going up and down a road is irrelevant if the conditions existing on the road, mainly due to the city’s own errors, are sufficient to create danger for those using the road.

“Over the past five years, the city has improperly paved a paper street, placed multiple signs and, after asking for citizen input, is now choosing to ignore it,” Lopez said. “Shouldn’t there be some study, some due diligence, something to ensure that a road is safe for passage before a city just decides to adopt it?”

“I did go down and take a look at this,” Rose said. “There is no chance of an expansion that would make it the width of a proper road. Right now, to have two cars pass each other, even in an emergency, would involve some deforesting.”

Instead, Rose proposed accepting a public way on the Allston Street section of Lawn Avenue, from its dogleg to the Lopez driveway, but then tearing up the pavement and planting vegetative buffers to block anything but pedestrian traffic from the Lopez driveway to Lincoln Street.

That would make Lawn Avenue a dead end. Although both Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth frown on dead-end streets, requiring cul-de-sacs or hammerhead turnarounds, Rose said the master plan for the Willard neighborhood cites the value of dead-ends for retaining “the tranquil setting that many residents have come to enjoy.”

Both Googins and Fire Chief James Wilson said public safety would not be unduly compromised by bulldozing Lawn Avenue at the intersection with Lincoln Street. However, Howard said plowing the road would be difficult. To that, Lopez suggested that use of her driveway, combined with taking down a dead pine tree across the street, might provide sufficient turn-around space for city plow trucks.

“We wouldn’t have a problem with that,” Howard said.

However, given the legal logistics of accepting part of the street but not the rest, the council agreed to table the question until its Aug. 7 meeting.

“As I understand it, our only option is to accept something as a public way. If we then go and turn that area into something other than a public way, I don’t know if we can do that,” Morelli said. “We can take the pavement up, but that area might have to remain private and not maintained or anything by the city – we can’t make it a green space, we can’t plant trees there. That small slip would have to remain private and whoever owns it, we don’t care.

“We may want to check on that though (and) get a legal opinion,” Morelli said.

Howard did not say how much it might cost to tear up the pavement put down in 2013, allowing only that, “We could do it in a couple of hours and get that out of there. It’s no big deal.”

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