AYER -- Residents of Old Groton Road are calling for more work to be done on the roughly 0.1-mile gravel path suffering from erosion and in general disrepair.

But determining the legal status of the private road, which runs from Washington Street to the intersection of Pleasant and Groton streets, is just as tricky as driving a car over it.

The road was shoved into the spotlight last winter, when selectmen faced concerns about a lack of snowplowing on the road.

Department of Public Works Superintendent Mark Wetzel told selectmen that workers could not plow the small road with the regular plow, and had to wait to get the smaller backhoe at the end of the day.

Selectmen suggested plowing with the smaller backhoe first as opposed to last.

Last week, selectmen ordered the DPW to grade the road in order to make it easier to plow, despite an opinion from town counsel saying that repairs on a private road would require passage of a bylaw.

Issues with the road date back far beyond last winter -- in his office, Wetzel has a thick file of documents on the rocky road.

At issue is whether the road is really private or is it public, which would dictate what the town can and cannot do to fix it up.

While residents along the road have Pleasant Street or Washington Street addresses, six have driveways on Old Groton Road. The road, sloping downhill from Washington Street to Pleasant Street, has faced long-term water runoff problems during rainstorms.


Wetzel has cited a 2005 letter from assessing administrator Thomas Hogan that takes advice from town counsel and concludes that abutters ultimately own the road.

"My understanding from town counsel's previous opinion on the road is that there is no longer a defined right-of-way, that the ownership of the property is reverted back to the abutters and each abutter owns to the center line of the road," he said.

A 2005 memo from former DPW superintendent Mike Madigan details work the department did between 2000 and 2005, including snowplowing and grading the road.

In the memo, Madigan said he approached selectmen in 2004 to ask about paving the road, but the board rejected the request because it was not a town road.

Since a 1967 Town Meeting accepted provisions of Chapter 40 of Massachusetts General Law, the DPW is allowed to plow the road during the winter even though it is not a publicly accepted way.

But according to a town counsel opinion Wetzel presented to selectmen last week, the town cannot repair a private way without first passing a bylaw that dictates whether repairs are a necessity and specifies the number of abutters who must petition for such repairs.

Selectman Gary Luca, who suggested at least grading the road, argued that the road needs to be graded properly in order to be plowed efficiently.

"If you want to do a full-blown fix on it, we really shouldn't be doing it," he said, adding that there still needs to be a long-term plan with the road.

Wetzel said the DPW will have to cut back small saplings and brush to open the road so that they can get their equipment through it.

He wasn't sure how much the project would cost, but said it's going to be fairly expensive.

"We don't have a grader," he said. "We're going to have to rent a grader or have a contractor grade it and roll it."

Wetzel said that if the town wants to improve the road, it will take a lot more than grading it.

"We need to bring it up to certain minimum standards, and that includes putting in some drainage ditches on the side," he said. "We can do all the grading up there we want, but the minute it rains it's going to wash everything down the end of the road."

Even if the town does have a 15-foot right-of-way on the road, Wetzel explained that he would need to add an additional five feet to it in order to put in proper drainage ditches that would help with erosion.

But Wetzel said residents didn't like the additional five feet taken from their land.

He said he has no problem with repairing the road, but it needs to be a public road.

In the opinion from Town Counsel Mark Reich presented last week, the road maintenance does not appear to be a matter of public necessity. 

But to the residents of Old Groton Road, it is.

Resident Douglas Janssen and his wife have their driveway on Old Groton Road, although their house address is listed at Pleasant Street.

The two have done some research into the history of the road and found that it was slowly forgotten as Ayer became a town and had to go through the process of naming its roads.

Janssen said he's not a fan of the statement that the road is private, and wants more research to be done into the matter.

"You could look at any piece of road that you're uncertain about and you could say that," he said. "You'd have to do some research, though, to find out, is there any history that says it was once this, it was once that."

Janssen said he has documented runoff issues with water coming from Washington Street onto Old Groton Road.

"The town, if they're not responsible for the road, they're responsible for what's happening to the road," he said.

The two "do not enter" road signs at each end of the road are irrelevant, Janssen said. He said he couldn't find anyone living on the road that had anything to do with the signs.

Janssen said he's happy with the selectmen's decisions to grade and plow the road.

Further up the road, Don Humphreys at 60 Washington Street has paved part of his front yard for a makeshift driveway because of difficulties getting cars off Old Groton Road behind his house.

Humphreys said it is a public town road, arguing that it used to be one of the main roads.

"Who pays the taxes on it if not, then?" he asked.

He said water runs down Washington Street and washes the rocks downhill to the end of the road.

The road has a street sign on it, he argued, so the town owns the road.

"I can't give up what isn't mine," he said.

Follow Amelia on Twitter and Tout @AmeliaPakHarvey.