Private To Public: Belmont Adding A Circle To Its Streets

Photo: Carleton Circle will soon move from a private way to a public road.

It’s been so long since the town of Belmont took ownership of a private street that Town Engineer Glenn Clancy can’t recall the last time it’s happened.

So next month’s Special Town Meeting will have a unique opportunity to approve the town’s taking of Carleton Circle, a 455 foot private through-way connecting Common and Washington streets.

“This is a rarity that something like this happens,” said the Select Board’s Adam Dash.

“A public road would mean that it would be cared for and maintained by the town,” said Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator.

That doesn’t mean the town hadn’t had some involvement in the current road’s upkeep. Private roads are plowed for snow and some patching is done by the town’s Highway Division, according to Garvin. But significant improvements is the responsibility of the owners which are the homeowners that abut the roadway.

Why private to public is such an anomaly is due to two major factors. First, all property owners must agree to the taking. And second, the roadway must be meet the “standards of a public way” in terms of road surface and if it has the necessary width, which in nearly all cases requires the abutters to come up with a significant amount of coin to reach that milestone.

“We don’t want to inherent any problems,” said Clancy.

In the case of Carleton Circle, one advantage is there are only nine abutters to the road, a small enough number that led to a successful outcome.

There have been initial attempts since 2000 to turn a few of the several private roads on Belmont Hill into public ways. But with between 50 to nearly 200 homeowners, it quickly became evident to campaigners they could never achieve an unanimously vote on those roads.

“We’ve been working with other people and other streets and it’s been very frustrating because you’ve got some holdouts who just won’t do it and it’s private property … so we can’t afford to go in and take this if people aren’t going to go along,” said Dash.

But just as important, the owners had the advantage of having the street recently repaved for free. During National Grid’s two year long improvements to the infrastructure under Common Street, the neighbors allowed a portion of the road to be a staging area for construction equipment. As part of the contract, the multinational utility agreed to repave the potholed asphalt surface at no cost.

Usually, the expense to homeowners of a private way to reach the public standard is significant and requires the abutters to seek a betterment assessment, a special property tax that lasts for 10 to 15 years in which the property receives a special benefit or advantage from the construction of a public improvement such as a new roadway.

But for the homeowners along Carleton Circle, the National Grid paving job “significantly helped” the road to reach the town’s pubic way standards, said Garvin.

“The most expensive element in a road project is the roadway itself. And because we were able to work with National Grid … it took the cost of asphalt in the road off the table,” said Clancy.

With much of the potential price tag reduced, the owners petitioned the town to make their street a public way. The town determined that a minimum amount of sidewalk maintenance and tree work would address the town’s remaining concerns. The owners anted up about $1,400 each and all signed a waiver to allow the road’s ownership to be passed over to the town.

A warrant article with an adopted layout of the street created by the Board of Surveyors was approved by the Select Board in early August.