Democrat File Photo
Local contractors have expressed concerns about how the Multi Municipal Task Force’s road use/preservation law enacted in a number of townships will affect them. Pictured is a Deckelman Trucking vehicle carrying a piece of the old bridge spanning the Callicoon Creek in Callicoon.
Will road use law hurt or ignore local contractors?
Story by Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY With nearly half the townships in Sullivan County poised to enact a road use/preservation law targeted at heavy truck traffic, local contractors and truckers are worrying their livelihoods may be hurt.
“This new law impacts residential construction,” said Charles Petersheim, founder and owner of Catskill Farms, an Eldred-based company specializing in homebuilding.
He points to language in the proposed law that indicates construction activity will require a road use agreement with the involved township(s).
“All of a sudden, residential construction becomes more complicated,” Petersheim argued.
Eight Sullivan County towns Bethel, Callicoon, Cochecton, Delaware, Highland, Lumberland, Rockland and Tusten formed a Multi-Municipal Task Force (MMTF) more than three years ago to address the gas drilling industry’s potential impacts on town roads.
Each provided at least $8,000 toward hiring engineering and legal firms to draft a law that would ensure towns were aware of and reimbursed for heavy truck damage to town-maintained streets.
But when it appeared that focusing on one industry for new regulation wouldn’t stand up in court, the MMTF broadened the law’s scope.
The proposed language now states that “baseline traffic” passenger vehicles, school buses, delivery vehicles, garbage trucks and “normal” commuter and business traffic won’t be affected, but “concentrated traffic” and “construction activity” will be.
“Concentrated traffic,” according to the proposed law, is that “which will exceed the predetermined normal wear and tear thresholds” of town roads. It specifically exempts “baseline traffic.”
But the definition for “baseline traffic” specifically exempts construction.
“Baseline traffic does not include unusual heavy traffic occurring on a temporary basis for such things as construction activity,” reads the proposal.
“Construction activity” is defined as “any activity ... that results in land disturbance or the improvement of a parcel.”
The definition goes on to explicitly include a host of construction activities which need federal, state and/or local permits not just oil and gas structures and mining but mining in general, utility linework, bank stabilization, hydropower projects, temporary construction, waste transport, sludge disposal, zoning changes, site plan approval, special uses and residential construction.
That, however, is about as specific as the proposed law gets, leaving the details to highway superintendents and engineers via proprietary program and technical manuals.
And that’s another worry for Petersheim.
“The highway superintendent is granted broad new powers,” he explained, pointing out that the proposed law even gives them the ability to issue and serve appearance tickets for violations of the law.
Petersheim feels the towns’ planning boards already have appropriate oversight of construction projects, and he worries that this new law will needlessly increase paperwork, regulations and expenses and give unbridled reign to town officials with personal or political agendas.
“Not all towns have wise leaders,” he stated. “[In the wrong hands,] this is a great tool to stop all growth. I think this adds a real uncertainty into an already tough business.”
His concerns are shared by Justin McElroy, founder and owner of Just-In-Time Contractors in Callicoon.
“It’s going to put more regulations on some of the smaller businesses in the area,” McElroy predicted, worrying that his company will be as restricted as the gas drilling industry for which the law was originally intended.
And costs will go up, he said.
“When we need 25 tons of stone to backfill a foundation, that will require special permits,” he envisioned. “Those trucking companies are going to in turn charge us higher rates.
“I really don’t think these officials understand the impact it’s going to be on these small businesses, which are the backbone of the community,” McElroy said.
But town supervisors like Cochecton’s Gary Maas and Callicoon’s Tom Bose think business owners misunderstand.
For example, it would take almost 200 trucks a day to trigger the law’s restrictions on a company building a swimming pool, said Maas.
“There’s an evaluation done,” he explained, noting that many businesses’ extra work will just be the 15-20 minutes it takes to fill out a project application with the town.
“It’s not a hardship.”
“It will not affect small businesses,” agreed Bose, explaining that the program and technical manuals’ calculations are geared toward high-impact, high-traffic trucking that is not normally experienced on town roadways.
A 10-home development, he noted as an example, should not be affected.
“The everyday traffic this will not include,” he stated, pointing out that the law targets truck volume, not weight.
Plus, said Maas, a section of the law specifically allows town boards by resolution to exempt any applicant from the requirements (so long as the board “makes a finding” that the involved town roads will be protected and any damage repaired).
Without the law, Bose worries taxpayers would be on the hook for abnormal wear-and-tear an expensive, time-consuming situation experienced by Cochecton during the Millennium Pipeline’s reconstruction.
“With nothing in place, it leaves us very vulnerable,” he said.
Callicoon and Cochecton, in fact, are leading the pack in potential adoption of the road use law. Bose said it was possible Callicoon might adopt the law at its town board meeting last night (after press time), while Maas expected Cochecton’s version to pass at tomorrow night’s meeting.
Other towns, however, aren’t as sure.
Delaware, for example, has extended its public hearing after residents expressed concerns over the logistics and costs associated with administering what amounts to a new program.
Highway Supt. Bill Eschenberg believes local businesses won’t be harmed by the law, but he admitted he’s “not 100 percent sure” how it will play out.
“The average construction, you really don’t have that iron pounding the pavement,” he assessed. “I don’t think the average log-hauler or homebuilder would have any problem.”
To answer such questions, however, the town is working to bring a representative of the MMTF’s engineering firm, Delta Engineers, to Hortonville for a town hall Q&A. (A company spokesman could not be reached for comment.)
Highland, too, is waiting on adoption of the law, with a public hearing scheduled for tonight at the town hall in Eldred.
“My opinion will be formed by the public hearing,” Supervisor Andy Boyar said.
Petersheim who may be in attendance says the law could be easy to tweak so as not to impact local businesses or consolidate so much power into the highway supt.’s hands, initially by including residential construction in the “baseline traffic” definition.
Spurred by similar concerns, the Town of Bethel is engaged in an even larger revision, said Supervisor Dan Sturm.
“We’re doing more of a truck route system ... designating certain roads for heavy truck traffic,” he explained of a process begun in the fall after the town attorney expressed concern over the constitutionality of the MMTF law as drafted.
Sturm confirmed that another impetus for the rewrite is the potential impact on local contractors and truckers.
“To us, yes, that’s a big deal,” he affirmed. “Nothing is as easy as a simple form.”
And the town plans to have the highway supt. share oversight duties with other officials or possibly a program manager.
“In Bethel, we prefer our highway supt. to focus on the maintenance of the roads,” Sturm said.
The goal is to have the legislation introduced in January, he added.
Petersheim hopes neighboring towns’ officials will hold off on the road use law’s adoption until it can be made clearer, so that local companies like his aren’t crossing their fingers about town leaders’ stated good intentions.
“The problem is, everyone thinks they can verbally massage things through,” he said of how he’s been told the law will be interpreted. “They may not want to impact small businesses, but this law says they should.”