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Long and Winding Controversy: Short Windsor Road Has Been Source of Access Questions for Years

  • Windsor, Vt., Selectboard Vice Chairman Bill Hochstin mows the lawn in front of his home in Windsor on July 8, 2014. A sign on a gate next to the home restricts vehicle access to Lake Runnemede via Pump Station Road. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Windsor, Vt., Selectboard Vice Chairman Bill Hochstin mows the lawn in front of his home in Windsor on July 8, 2014. A sign on a gate next to the home restricts vehicle access to Lake Runnemede via Pump Station Road. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Windsor Selectboard Vice Chairman Bill Hochstin listens to Town Manager Tom Marsh during a meeting of the Selectboard at the town offices in Windsor, Vt., on July 8, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Windsor Selectboard Vice Chairman Bill Hochstin listens to Town Manager Tom Marsh during a meeting of the Selectboard at the town offices in Windsor, Vt., on July 8, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A sign near the intersection of State Street and Pump Station Road in Windsor, Vt., pictured on July 1, claims to prohibit vehicles. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    A sign near the intersection of State Street and Pump Station Road in Windsor, Vt., pictured on July 1, claims to prohibit vehicles. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A sign near the intersection of State Street and Pump Station Road in Windsor, Vt., pictured on July 1, claims to prohibit vehicles. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    A sign near the intersection of State Street and Pump Station Road in Windsor, Vt., pictured on July 1, claims to prohibit vehicles. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Windsor, Vt., Selectboard Vice Chairman Bill Hochstin mows the lawn in front of his home in Windsor on July 8, 2014. A sign on a gate next to the home restricts vehicle access to Lake Runnemede via Pump Station Road. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Windsor Selectboard Vice Chairman Bill Hochstin listens to Town Manager Tom Marsh during a meeting of the Selectboard at the town offices in Windsor, Vt., on July 8, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • A sign near the intersection of State Street and Pump Station Road in Windsor, Vt., pictured on July 1, claims to prohibit vehicles. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • A sign near the intersection of State Street and Pump Station Road in Windsor, Vt., pictured on July 1, claims to prohibit vehicles. (Valley News - Will Parson)

Windsor — In the back of the town lister’s office, in the depths of a black filing cabinet tucked into a corner, hides an ordinary manila folder. The folder is labeled “Pump Station Road” on the left and “Research” on the right.

Inside are documents — from the 1870s through the mid-20th century and beyond — concerning the short dead-end road that skirts scenic Lake Runnemede and leads to the town’s pump station, the metal gate built at its entrance, and the two pieces of property that flank its intersection with State Street, the main drag downtown that passes the high school.

The folder’s very existence suggests the struggle town officials face when responding to a question that seems simple but actually is burdened by decades of debate: Are private vehicles allowed on Pump Station Road?

“That’s a good question,” Police Chief Stephen Soares said in an interview last month. “I certainly can confirm that there’s been some confusion about the access to that area.”

Police have been called to the area multiple times over the years to respond to arguments over access, said Soares, and town officials field questions at least once a summer, said Town Manager Tom Marsh, who has held the post for about three years.

Lister Marianne Blake sorted through dozens of documents to assemble the folder, she said, because “the problem has come up more than once.”

After all of that research, what does she think the rules are?

“It’s unclear,” she said recently, before tucking the folder back into the filing cabinet.

The question could be settled soon, though. Following an uptick in interest this year, Marsh said, the issue has been added to the July 22 Selectboard agenda so officials and the public might gain some clarity. And, Marsh said, he may have found a document that untangles some of the mess — but the board will still need to act.

“If it was as clear as it should be, there wouldn’t be all this discussion out there,” Marsh said during an interview last month.

The road is a Class III public town highway, according to town records, which means it falls under the Selectboard’s authority. State statute allows towns to “make special regulations as to the operation, use, and parking of motor vehicles on highways under their jurisdiction.”

In the past, residents have raised concerns about partying and other unwanted behavior at the bottom of the road, but in the daytime it is used by anglers, joggers and dog-walkers, who can turn off busy State Street to find a tranquil pond and marked connections to short hiking trails.

The prevailing law, Soares said, is common sense.

If a vehicle showed up there and, let’s say the extreme case, there’s a handicapped person driving and the handicapped person says, ‘I want to go down and fish,’ I’m going open the gate and let that person go down and fish,” Soares said. “Now, if it’s a group of people that just want to go down and camp out, for example, I’m going to say no, until there’s some clarity about that .”

Marsh said t he issue is not that certain people disagree with a specific decision. It’s more that people have different ideas about what the decision was — that is, if any decision has ever been made.

Last week, Marsh said he located a document, apparently from the 1990s, that includes a map showing a crosshatched area designated as the “wellhead protection area” around Lake Runnemede.

It appears the intent was to prohibit parked vehicles in the crosshatched area — which includes Pump Station Road — and that’s why the town installed the gate there. But the Selectboard never closed the loop by designating the road as off-limits to private vehicles.

But the document also raises questions about other areas within the crosshatched space, including a parking area for the trailhead off County Road, which Marsh said the Selectboard will have to address.

The ownership issue — and, indeed, much of the decades-long debate — revolves around the metal gate built at the top of Pump Station Road, blocking vehicles from State Street and the driveway for the home owned by the Selectboard vice chairman and his wife, who oppose allowing private vehicles on the road.

Town documents show the town paid $1,856 to have the gate installed in 1992. But in an email sent to Marsh on June 17, Selectman Bill Hochstin said the gate was preceded by a simple chain link fence, installed to address the Federal Clean Water act (which) requires a zone of some 1,500 feet from all vehicular traffic” buffering public drinking supplies, such as the wells next to Lake Runnemede.

Kira Jacobs, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Source Water Protection Program in the New England area, said she and her local colleagues were not aware of any such restriction.

Jacobs provided an email from her colleague, which said that “the only requirement for source protection is that a paved road or vehicle parking must be listed as a high risk in the system’s (potential sources of contamination) inventory in their source protection plan.

“So they can’t use the wells or the (source protection area) as reason to prohibit use of the road unless there is a town ordinance or zoning restriction stating otherwise,” the email said.

Bill and Cecilia Hochstin moved into one of the two houses that flank the entrance to Pump Station Road in the late 1970s. Access to their driveway is blocked by the gate. Before the metal gate was installed in 1992, town workers “had to unlock the chain every time that they wanted access,” Hochstin wrote in the email, “and they ran into all sorts of vehicles illegally parked and people nowhere to be found, along with some significant incidents of vandalism. … The town asked me if I would mind a gate at the top of the hill that was going to solve the access problem and would run on solar.”

Ultimately, the gate needed to be opened and closed too often for solar to work, so Hochstin agreed to pay for the small amount of electricity required to operate it, he wrote.

Marsh said the gate can be opened by remote controls carried by several town employees and the Hochstins. Marsh said the gate could probably be pushed open manually as well.

The Hochstins and the town had had earlier discussions about Pump Station Road. In the mid-1980s, the couple complained that the town had illegally dumped waste on their property along the road, believing it was town land, and that the large trucks had damaged their home’s foundation in the process.

Hochstin said in the email that he was happy to pay for the electricity to power the gate as “it helps prevent any more damage to my foundation.”

“The gate has been attached to my home for years and I have maintained it and paid for the electricity,” Hochstin wrote. “I believe that because of this long record of my covering all costs that the gate would be considered my property in a court decision. I don’t actually care who owns it because it serves the purpose for it. I do not want any more illegal dumping nor do I want my foundation damaged again.”

In an interview, Hochstin said the email was sparked by concerns about damage to his property’s foundation following an incident in which someone pushed open the gate to drive his truck to the lake to go fishing.

Hochstin said he has no problem with town vehicles driving on the road in order to access the pump station for maintenance, “but if you’re doing it for funsies, go ahead but you’re going to have to fix my foundation.”

The gate is generally closed. There is a walkway for foot traffic and a sign designating the walkway. Public parking is available on State Street toward the downtown area.

Adam Perron, who said he opened the gate to go fishing at the lake recently , alleged that Cecilia Hochstin yelled at him for using the road. “She was cussing at me like a sailor,” said Perron, a longtime Windsor resident who graduated from Windsor High School in 1984.

Perron said he had first checked with a friend, a town employee, about using Pump Station Road and was told it was a public road.

If vehicular access is limited, Perron said, he feels it should be open at least to people who have trouble walking, such as handicapped people or the elderly. In any case, he said, he disagreed with Cecilia Hochstin’s reaction to him driving down there.

“This isn’t how you’re supposed to approach somebody the first time you’ve got a problem with them,” he said. “You don’t own the gate, you don’t own the pond.”

When reached at home last month, Cecilia Hochstin declined to comment. In the subsequent telephone interview, Bill Hochstin said he wasn’t there at the time of the incident, but said, “I wouldn’t characterize my wife that would overreact to something like that.”

“We’re not bothered by people, we’re not caretakers or gatekeepers or anything else,” he said.

In addition to concerns about his property, he said, he’s against vehicular traffic on the road because it’s steep and narrow with lots of pedestrians and is “not designed for traffic, it’s designed to maintain the pumps.”

Hochstin could not point to town rules that prohibited vehicular traffic, but said he believed the Paradise Park Commission, which oversees the area through which the road runs, has rules barring private vehicles.

One of the commission’s documents about Lake Runnemede, also known locally as Evarts Pond, notes that there is “currently no parking available on the property at these access points” including Pump Station Road, “although users can park other places and walk into the property along these roads.”

Messages left with several members of the commission, as well as an email to Chairwoman Paula Robbins, were not returned.

The gate has official-looking metal signs that say “no vehicles” and “no parking,” which Hochstin said he did not install. “I don’t think it’s confusion. I think it’s people don’t like the answer so they get confused,” he said. “I think it’s clear as can be, but certain people probably don’t like the interpretation.”

Hochstin said he was in favor of “clearing it up (so) everyone gets the same understanding.” He said he would recuse himself from any Selectboard discussions about the issue.

Marsh said he does not believe the Hochstins have received special treatment or that there has been a delay in settling the issue because Bill Hochstin is a member of the Selectboard.

“There was nothing to that, other than the gossip that goes on around the town,” he said. “I really don’t know why this wasn’t addressed. … It wasn’t really all that difficult.

Selectman Jeff White also said he wasn’t clear on the rules, but had always been under the impression that the public was not allowed to drive down the road. He said he doesn’t yet have an opinion on the issue because he hasn’t heard all of the arguments.

“I think there should be some sort of public access,” he said. “That’s always a slippery slope because if you allow vehicle traffic down there, it’s inevitable that things will happen down there that you don’t want to happen.”

The Hochstins’ State Street neighbors on the other side of the entrance to Pump Station Road said their understanding is that vehicles are not allowed but foot traffic is.

“I have noticed some cars going down there and I do feel concerned when that happens,” Michelle McFarland, who has lived there with her family for more than three years, said in an email. “I would like to keep the access to foot traffic. It is very close to my house and I have small children. I already live on a busy street therefore would like Pump Station Road to remain quiet.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.