Pothole Pain: When the DPW Won’t Fix Your Street

There are thousands of private roads in Massachusetts and some homeowners don't realize they live on one until there's a problem

If you travel along Forsberg Street on the south side of Worcester, you better buckle up because you're in for a bumpy ride.

Homeowners in the neighborhood are not shy about sharing their frustrations.

Amanda Grenier told us the slightest mistake can cause you to lose a tire on your vehicle. Joe Befeudis said it feels like he visits the mechanic on a weekly basis. Pam Peltier pointed to the section of her yard that's been carved away by vehicles trying to avoid a giant crater in the road.

"Your family won't even come to visit you," Peltier lamented. "And it's hard to blame them!"

It might sound like hyperbole, but when the NBC10 Boston Investigators visited Forsberg Street in August, it was quite a mess of buckled pavement.

"It doesn't even look like a real road," said Grenier, a mother of two young kids. "I can't even take the stroller down to the park. It's just ridiculous."

So where is the Worcester Department of Public Works, you ask? As homeowners on the street discovered, the city won't touch the stretch of Forsberg because it's actually a private road.

Grenier said that news came as a total surprise, considering the neighborhood is serviced by city utilities, has trash pickup and even gets plowed in the winter.

"None of us knew," she said. "We have public everything. How does one section of road become private? Just a section?!"

According to Worcester's records, this is how: Back in the 1950s, homeowners petitioned to make their street public, paying an assessment to bring the road up to municipal standards.

However, the conversion did not apply to all of Forsberg Street. For whatever reason, the public section stops at Harwich Street and the private portion continues to where the road reaches a dead end at the top of a hill.

Paul Moosey, the Worcester DPW commissioner for the past 35 years, said confusion over private roads is high on the list of complaints his department hears from residents. The city has more than 80 miles of private roads within its boundaries.

"It's very frustrating because, as public works people, we hate to get a phone call and tell someone there's nothing we can do," Moosey told us.

Those tough conversations happen all over Massachusetts because there is a patchwork of thousands of private roads, thanks to communities that sprouted up before regulations took effect requiring streets be built with certain standards and appropriate drainage.

"That's only been since about 1930," Moosey laughed. "A lot of this city existed in the 1800s!"

Where private roads might conjure up images of windy gravel roads in rural areas, they can exist almost anywhere in the Boston metro area. They are in upscale neighborhoods and close to town centers.

For instance, Dunstan Street connects two busy thoroughfares — Washington and Watertown streets — near West Newton's village square, only a stone's throw from the Massachusetts Turnpike. But the road is lined with potholes, waiting to ensnare drivers cutting through the neighborhood.

How your community handles private roads depends on where you live. Some municipalities pass legislation to do things like plow, pick up trash or even patch up potholes.

However, state law prevents them from spending public funds to repair or repave private roads.

"I'm not allowed to do it," Moosey explained. "It would be the same as me putting a roof on a guy's house."

That can be a frustrating reality for homeowners like Joyce Guleserian. The Arlington homeowner told us her pothole-filled section of College Avenue is the worst it's looked during her 55 years in the neighborhood.

"It's horrendous. I'm very unhappy about it," said Gulesarian, who brought the issue to our attention during NBC10 Boston's Talk to Ten event in August. "I and everyone else on the street pays taxes and I think something should be done about it."

Unfortunately, for those who live on private roads, one of the only remedies is getting together with your neighbors and petitioning to have the street converted to a public way. It's not cheap.

At roughly $150 per foot, homeowners can easily pay assessments of more than $15,000.

Back on Forsberg Street, Grenier wishes it was something she knew to ask about when she and her husband bought the house in 2011.

"We can't keep living like this," she said, staring at the crumbling pavement. "It's really frustrating that I had no idea this was possible."

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@nbcuni.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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