Sawmills struggles to take over private roads

Apr. 16, 2013 @ 06:29 AM

When you turn from U.S. 321-A onto Elmore Drive in Sawmills, you almost have to stop.

There at the turn, the road is riddled with holes. The pavement is old and full of huge rips that fill with water when it rains.

The road is narrow and hasn’t been paved since the 1980s. Now, the asphalt buckles and folds. Go any faster than 20 on Elmore Drive and the jostling feels as if you soon might knock your head on the roof of your car.

There are seven houses and two businesses on this privately owned road. Everyone who lives and works there would like to hand ownership over to the Town of Sawmills.

But town leaders aren’t sure they have the money to take it, at least not this year.

Earlier this year, residents presented a petition asking the Sawmills Town Council to take ownership of Elmore Drive. Town ownership would require immediate renovations to the road. It’s not wide enough, and it needs to be repaved. That could cost as much as $70,000.

Icy days on Elmore Drive are particularly challenging. Since it’s a private road, there’s no snowplow to clear it and no public works department to sprinkle salt. There’s no fire hydrant, either.

Mike Mull, the owner of Mullhaus Kennels on Elmore Drive, owns a home in Rhodhiss but he stays in a mobile home by the kennels when it snows because he knows there’s no way he can make it down Elmore when it's icy.

Roger Stout, Mull’s neighbor, said the road’s condition has gotten worse in recent years, but he thinks it’s just the initial fix that would tax the town.

“It wouldn’t be hard to maintain if it was just fixed,” Stout said. “The people on the road don’t really have the money to spend on it.”

Occasionally, a neighbor will go door-to-door asking each house to pool money toward fixing the road. But times are tough. No one has the money to do it.

When they talk about their hopes for town ownership, both Stout and Mull often cite all the taxes they’ve paid in their years here.

“I’ve paid a lot of taxes,” Stout said. “We feel like we’ve paid enough taxes in that we should have a paid road.”

Seth Eckard, the Sawmills town administrator, said he understands where the people of Elmore Drive are coming from.

“I would think the same thing,” Eckard said. “I would think, ‘Man, I’m paying these taxes every year for 30-some years, but yet you guys can’t come in and build me a road.’”

But municipal revenue is a thorny, complicated thing. Funding for roads comes through North Carolina's gas tax; the state then apportions it to municipalities. And it's not enough to take on a new project, Eckard said.

“The problem is that the money the state gives you is never enough to repair a road – or fix a road, or build a road,” he said.

When it was incorporated in 1988, Sawmills took over many of the roads maintained by the state Department of Transportation, but there were still private roads scattered throughout the town. Now town leaders are trying to take over as many of those roads as they can. Eckard wants to create a point system to determine which roads are the highest priority, based on criteria such as the number of homes on the road and the condition of the pavement.

Eckard thinks Elmore Drive would be a top priority. Eventually, Sawmills will take over Elmore Drive.

For now, the town will bring some gravel out to the road and plans to install a fire hydrant.

Until anything happens, Mull and Stout and their neighbors will still stop when they turn in. They’ll bump over the folds of old pavement. They’ll fill the holes with gravel, one by one.

And they’ll wait.

“I don’t play politics,” Mull said. “I work and then I go home. So all these councilmen and so forth, I’m sure they’ve heard of me over the last 37 years, but I don’t politick. I don’t have connections. I’m just hoping they do the right thing.”