LIBERTY, Maine — A hilly gravel road that’s less than 2 miles long and primarily is used by a few summer residents is the subject of a lawsuit that has been filed against the town of Liberty.
Residents of the small community voted at this spring’s annual town meeting to raise $40,000 for legal fees to fight the suit, filed in late February at Waldo County Superior Court by a Bolin Hill Road family that wants Liberty to maintain their road.
“The town considers the road an abandoned road,” First Selectman Bud Steeves said Tuesday. “The town is really not interested in investing in an abandoned road. It’s a whole lot of cost.”
Steeves said that because of the expected expenditure for legal fees, voters decided at the meeting not to raise any funds to help pave the 20 or so miles of roads in Liberty this year. He said that was an attempt to “hopefully control” the town’s property tax mill rate, which is $15.90 per $1,000 in assessed property value.
Bolin Hill Road residents Debra, Adam and George Paul, who filed the lawsuit, said this week they believe spending the $40,000 to maintain their road would have been a much better use of the town’s financial resources.
“It’s just foolishness,” Debra Paul said. “My ultimate goal is that they’d step up to the plate and maintain a road that’s a town way. If people are paying taxes, they need to get some services.”
However, Liberty officials and the Paul family are not in agreement over what is considered a town way. That’s not unusual, according to attorney Bill Kelly of Belfast, who is representing the town of Liberty in the suit.
“It is complicated,” Kelly said. “There’s multiple ways to create roads. There’s multiple levels of use. Even with an abandonment, frequently, public use is maintained. That is the status of the Bolin Hill Road.”
As it stands, the town of Liberty does maintain the first two-tenths of the road, which begins off Route 3 to the north of Lake St. George and travels first west, then northeast until it peters out in the woods. At the far end, the town owns a woodlot and has an interest in getting to the woodlot, Kelly said.
“The woodlot has nothing to do with the public use of the road,” he said.
Town officials, including several longtime selectmen, believe most of the road has been “clearly abandoned,” Kelly said.
“We have good historical information,” he said, adding that the Select Board determined at the end of December that the road legally is abandoned.
According to the Paul family, however, the town has been ignoring — but not abandoning — the road. Fourteen different taxpayers own property along it, she said, but most of those people access their property only in the summertime. When the Pauls moved up from Massachusetts nine years ago, however, they purchased a parcel with the intention of living there year-round, she said.
“I have rescue horses. I wanted to do therapeutic riding [sessions],” Debra Paul said. “We intentionally bought at the end of a dead-end road.”
They understood the road had always been a town way. But now, it is impassable and overrun with people riding all-terrain vehicles. The ruts and drainage problems are so bad she can no longer access her property in her all-wheel drive Subaru.
“Anybody and everybody can use that road,” she said. “Any time of year, even mud season, they can ruin it. There’s nothing we can do.”
She said the property owners on that road paid a total of $114,000 in taxes in 2013 and yet are not able to be assured they have police or fire protection because the road is so bad the emergency vehicles cannot get through. If it were a private road, she and the other property owners conceivably could raise the money to fix it. But because it’s not private, she believes they could be liable if someone were to get hurt on the road after they fixed it.
“Something will be done. It’s a question of bringing stuff to light,” she said, adding she thinks part of the problem is that her family is from Massachusetts and longtime Liberty residents are biased against them.
However, Kelly said money is the more relevant concern.
“I understand the estimate to maintain the road is many hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “There’s no truth whatsoever that these people are being targeted.”