Neighbors Join Together to Maintain Country Roads

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Fixing dirt roads in farm country.

Neighbors join forces to solve problems and maintain country roads.

My first experience with living on a dirt road was when I moved to the country 50 miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Seven or so families shared ownership in a perfectly straight, two-mile-long gravel road. With fewer than 12 inches of precipitation a year, our road was less trouble than dirt roads in wetter climes. Still, when it snowed the road had to be plowed or it was impassable, and in the summer the dust whirled.

Luckily a few of the neighbors owned tractors and understood the principles of road construction, and joined forces to maintain country roads. They voluntarily kept the road clear in the winter, reshaped the surface after spring thaw to replace the gravel and added new surface gravel every few years as needed. Homeowners belonged by default to a road association. Ours was run quite informally; whenever money was needed to pay for gravel, a neighbor called us up, and we anted up $25 a month for a few months until enough was collected. (One neighbor refused to pay. We all just ignored his stinginess.)

That’s typical of many road associations, according to Richard Casale, district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Capitola, California. Whether informal or formal — incorporated as a nonprofit and registered with the county or state — associations are necessary when more than a few families are sharing responsibility for a road, he said.

Good road maintenance should begin with a plan, Casale said. Get the neighbors together to talk about problems with the road (including issues such as emergency access and traffic speed) and make a list. Find a local government expert — through the Natural Resource Conservation Service or state-run soil and water conservation offices — to do a “road walk,” helping to identify the most pressing problems and potential solutions.

Select someone among the group who is willing to take responsibility for dealing with the problems — whether that means calling in a professional or marshaling the shovels and tractors. Come to an agreement about money: Should everyone contribute the same amount, or should costs be prorated for lengths of the road used by each family? Figure out an easy way to collect money. Hold regular (even if infrequent) meetings so everyone knows what’s happening.

Casale said formal road associations sometimes qualify for grants to help deal with problems if they are coping with environmental or fire threats at the same time.

Groups that form to solve seemingly intractable road problems often end up thanking Casale, and not just for his help on the road issues, he said. “It’s the closest they’ve ever been to their neighbors.” It’s possible to turn a road problem into something that unites your neighborhood.

I miss that old road association of mine, though we never had a single meeting. Where I now live — closer to Santa Fe, but still in the country — my neighbors and I have no road group. One neighbor plowed the snow off our single lane last year when we couldn’t get out. Another dropped a load of stone on the road near his house. My household bought a load of base course for our part of the road, but the ruts are getting progressively deeper. The culvert at the top of the road is exposed, and if we got a good rain it could collapse. I think that soon I’ll be taking Casale’s advice.

“Hello, Steve? What do you say we have aneighborhood potluck?” 

—Hollis Walker