© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - Defending the town's Department of Public Works (DPW), the Board of Selectmen recently forewarned residents about local and state prohibitions on spending taxpayer money for maintenance of private ways.

During a gathering in Town Hall's Hearing Room last Tuesday, Selectman George Seibold took exception to a recent Letter-to-the-Editor in The Stoneham Independent, in which a Garden Road resident intimated Stoneham's DPW was intentionally shirking its obligations to repair damaged sidewalks.

Though never mentioning his colleague by name, Seibold's ire appeared to be more directed at Selectman Caroline Colarusso than the resident in question, who the selectman described as being a victim of misinformation.

Colarusso was not in attendance at the recent gathering and was thus unable to defend her position.

"There was an article in the paper regarding private ways and what we can and can't do," said Seibold. "It's frustrating to hear the DPW getting bashed because it isn't taking care of a private way. That's not their job."

"I've also been asked a couple of times about private ways and there is some confusion," later commented Selectmen Chair Anthony Wilson, who agreed a clarification for residents is likely needed. "Private ways are private land, and though cars can drive through them, it's technically illegal for us to do work on someone else's land."

Reached after the recent meeting for a comment about a separate issue, Colarusso explained she regularly tries to advocate on behalf of residents after being contacted for help and too often finds herself running into roadblocks, when it comes to getting information about the DPW.

In recent years, the senior selectman and DPW Director Robert Grover have very publicly butted heads over a host of issues — most frequently and especially about differences of opinion in regards to roadway repairs and expenditures from water and sewer enterprise accounts.

"I feel that anything that I initiate despite its good intentions with regards to transparency for the people of Stoneham is not brought forward," she said.

Specifically, late last month, Garden Street resident Michael Ganzak explained a history of water runoff near his home had caused a portion of the sidewalk in front of the house to partially collapse.

The homeowner, who purchased the new home by Green and Elm Streets in 2016, has since made arrangements to fix erosion on his own 10,200 square foot lot, but he was unsure how to arrange repairs to the sidewalk.

After being turned down by public works officials, Ganzak apparently reached out to Colarusso, who lives nearby on the opposite side of Green Road.

"This work is going to cost my wife and I in excess of $35,000. We're happy to do this work and to beautify our property [to] get it up to par with our neighbors," the new resident explained. "However, unless the DPW agrees to replace/repair the sidewalk…all the money I'm personally spending will be slowly undone by continued water damage."

"I've spoken with Caroline Colarusso directly about my issue and she was very blunt with me. She told me the town/DPW will always try anything they can to get out of repairing something like this, despite it being their responsibility," he added.

According to Town Administrator Thomas Younger, the issue with giving advise about such scenarios is that Stoneham has a significant number of private ways scattered across town.

For that reason, Colarusso's assessment and advise — which would make sense under circumstances where the town owned the sidewalk in question — proved to be misguided. Younger later appraised Seibold and other board members that he had since spoken directly with the Garden Road resident, who was advised how to arrange repairs.

"A challenge we have here is we have a lot of roads that have not been accepted as public ways that are [substantial in size] and connect to other [major streets]," said Younger.

With town officials having dealt with complaints about private ways on a number of occasions, most commonly in instances where plowing services or tree removal work are requested, the selectmen made clear that regardless of what happened in the past, DPW crews can only make fixes to public assets.

"The difficulty that arises is that most people don't know their streets are private ways. But state law very succintly constrains what we're allowed to do own private ways," Wilson remarked. "There are processes where if you live on a private way and it's bullt to the town's standards, you can get it accepted as a private way."

The Planning Board, in its role of enforcing state and local subdivision control laws, has for a number of years now included a standard condition for new developments in which new homeowners are responsible for maintaining access roads, drainage systems and culverts.

In a recent case where the selectman was subsequently asked to intervene in a private dispute regarding such a development, Younger pointed out that town approvals for the Smitty's Way subdivision expressly forbid homeowners' from ever asking local officials to adopt the cul-de-sac as a public way.

If a homeowner is confused as to whether they live on a private way, and what restrictions might be placed on making repairs to sidewalks and other infrastructure, he or she is advised by the selectman to contact Younger or Town Planner Erin Wortman.

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