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Dust-up over dirt roads

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County has spent tax dollars maintaining improperly gated public roads

By Greg Summers

Lancaster County bush-hogged some overgrowth and hauled in some gravel last month to repair a remote dirt road with a locked gate limiting public access.

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A handful of taxpayers are livid about that.

They showed up at the last county council meeting to talk about Timberline Road, a red-clay 2.1-mile stretch off Camden Road, at the far eastern edge of the county south of S.C. 9. The road was repaired by the county June 11-14. 

“How did it get fixed? I don’t understand,” an incredulous Gary Greene asked council members June 25. “What are we doing with a locked gate and paying county taxes to have it fixed behind closed doors? That doesn’t make sense.” 

Former county council member Wayne Kersey called the repairs squandering tax dollars on private property.

“It’s against the law for county employees to trespass on private property…. And this should not be allowed,” Kersey said.

While county council has stayed mum on the uproar, County Administrator Steve Willis and County Attorney John Weaver said the repairs weren’t improper. Timberline is definitely a county road, they said.

But they said the gate, which was installed decades ago by a hunting club that leases land there, should never have been allowed to remain on a county road. 

It turns out there are several county-maintained roads with gates, though state law makes clear that this should not happen, said Willis.

He said there is no written county policy on repairing gated roads, but state law says it’s illegal for anyone to block a public road.

Going forward, Willis said, the county will make it clear to property owners that if a county road is gated, it will not be maintained using tax dollars. 

Timberline’s history

Timberline Road is a timber-access road. Weaver said a recorded county plat shows it was added to the county road system in the 1950s.

“It is a county road, and when something becomes a county road, it remains a county road until it is removed from our system,” Weaver said.

Five property owners have land abutting Timberline Road. Part of the property is leased to L&L Hunting Club.

One property owner, semi-retired Methodist pastor Glen Ribelin, asked the county to scrape and fix the road last October, said county Public Works Director Jeff Catoe. 

Catoe said Ribelin was told the county would not work on the road until the gate, which was secured with a combination lock, was opened.

Ribelin’s family owns 96 acres at the end Timberline Road and leases another 140 acres behind it. 

Ribelin, a former county employee, said he recently discussed the request with his county council representative, Billy Mosteller. 

“I did exactly what they told me to do. I opened the gate, and they worked it. What’s good for one taxpayer is good for another,” Ribelin said.  

Mosteller, in turn, said he forwarded the request to Catoe.

Mosteller said the request was handled in the same fashion as any other one that comes to his attention. Mosteller said he could not speak to how other council members handle similar requests.

“Jeff Catoe checked to make sure it was a county road, and they addressed it,” Mosteller said.

Ex-county employee

Catoe said Ribelin’s request was not treated differently because he used to work for the county. Ribelin was a county public works employee for nine years and a corrections officer for four years, before entering the ministry full-time. 

“Absolutely not. Mr. Ribelin was treated just any other citizen that makes a request to have a county road scraped. We had someone look at it, and it needed to be addressed,” Catoe said.    

“Our answer for the last 10 years has been the same. We won’t do anything as long as a gate is there. If it’s open, we will work it,” he said. 

And in this case, for it to remain a county-maintained road, Weaver said the gate must be removed, not just opened.

Catoe said Timberline Road was so overgrown that it had to be bush-hogged before it could be scraped. Two employees cleared the shoulders on June 11-12. 

The road was scraped by one employee June 13-14, with two county dump-truck drivers delivering seven loads of lower-grade crush and run gravel to fill in several spots.

“We had five total employees down there working, but not all at the same time,” he said. “If it was private property, I wouldn’t have sent our crews down there to work it.” 

Repairs’ price tag  

Willis said once the county was notified that the road needed to be repaired, it was required to fix it.

“If somebody calls up and it’s a county-maintained road, we have to look at it,” he said. “Once you’ve been put on notice and you fail to take corrective action, when something happens, you become liable for it.”  

Catoe, Weaver and Willis disputed a TV news report that said the county spent $50,000 to $100,000 on the Timberline Road repairs.

The story, by WSOC-TV reporter Greg Suskin, was broadcast June 22. News anchor Allison Latos said on air, “Sources estimate that a county public works crew did between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of work on that road last week.”

Willis copied the The Lancaster News on a document from Catoe showing that $7,652.05 was spent on the Timberline repairs. This includes labor, equipment and “waste material off yard” at $5 per ton. Waste material is a low grade of gravel that the county uses on seldom-used dirt roads without houses. 

“We’re trying to be the best stewards possible of the taxpayer money we’re responsible for, to make it go as far as it can,” Catoe said.

Contacted Friday about the county’s cost document, Suskin said his source for the $50,000-to-$100,000 estimate was county council member Jack Estridge. 

“At the time we did that story, the county was not willing to tell us what was spent on the road,” Suskin said.

Estridge said Friday that he was Suskin’s source. “He asked me and I gave him what I thought,” Estridge said, adding that he doubted Catoe’s figures. 

“If you bring anybody down there to do 4 miles of dirt road for $5,000 to $7,000, I just don’t think they would. I wish I could find somebody to do work like that for that price.”

Estridge also said someone closed and relocked the gate June 17.

“I know, ’cause I saw it. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a county road with a locked gate on it worked and scraped. That should raise a red flag for anybody,” Estridge said. 

Ribelin said the gate was relocked at the end of each day the county worked it and reopened the next morning. 

“I was told on June 18 the gate had to stay open, and it’s open,” he said. 

The gate

The gate on Timberline Road, said local forestry consultant Bill Ardrey, was put up in 1993. Ardrey has been managing the timberland on Timberline Road since 1972, though he calls it Old English Road.

A sign posted by the hunt club at the gate calls it Old English, though the county placed a stop sign and a street sign designating it as Timberline Road on June 25 – three days after the WSOC story aired.

The name, said Weaver, matters little. Plats show that it is a county-maintained road. 

At one time, Ardrey said, an elderly couple lived at the end of the road and the county did maintain it. But when the couple moved, the county quit working on it. The gate, he said, was put up by the hunting club to keep out trespassers, four-wheel-drive mud-boggers, and people dumping trash and appliances.

Ardrey said the county has not worked on the road since the gate was put up. 

But Catoe said county records show Timberline was repaired as recently as 2012.

“It was scraped one other time before then, too,” Ribelin said. “All I did was ask for it to be worked to make it passable. It’s the only right of way I have to get to my property.”

Ribelin admits that he should have objected when the gate was put up.   

“That’s about the time I had gotten saved and I didn’t want to offend anybody,” he said. “I never understood how the county allowed the gate to be put up to start with. 

“All I know is it’s a county road that needed to be scraped so I could get to my property. It’s a county road, and it was called Timberline Road when I bought my property in 1989,” Ribelin said. “As far as I know, the hunting club put it up. I’m not in it [the hunting club]. I wasn’t there when it was put up, so I don’t know for sure.” 

Gates policy

While state law prohibits putting gates on public roads, it does happen. 

“If we know about them, we’ll tell them that it’s against state law,” Willis said. “We’ll notify all the adjacent property owners and let them know. We don’t have the staff to patrol every road in the county.”  

Some of the gated roads, though, have been repaired by the county, Catoe said.

A section of Industrial Park Road, he noted, is gated and locked. That section has an access point to the Catawba River that is used by the county’s wastewater treatment plant contractor to draw water samples.  

Wagon Wheel Drive off Goldmine Highway is also gated, as is Harkey Road near the old county landfill in the Jones Crossroads community. Both are county roads.

“We were contacted by one of the landowners on Harkey about 18 months ago about working it. We told him the gate had to come down, and he said he would take care of it,” Catoe said. “But the man died. The gate is still up, and we haven’t touched it.”  

Catoe noted that Maranda Lane off Flint Ridge Road in Heath Springs isn’t gated, but is separated by a dirt berm and is worked by county pubic works from both ends. 

“Honestly, the best answer is I can give is it’s a case-by-case basis,” Catoe said.

A gate was recently installed by a private owner on Blaze Road off S.C. 9, along with private property and road signs. Blaze Road is about 3 miles from Timberline Road. 

Catoe said records show the county last repaired Blaze Road in 2016. At one time, the road was maintained for Lancaster Fire & Rescue to provide access to a dry hydrant.

A dry hydrant is a permanent non-pressurized pipe system installed in a lake or pond to provide water access to fire trucks when needed.

Added fire hydrants in that area of the county have lessened the need for access to the emergency water source, said Lancaster Fire & Rescue’s Billy Lloyd.

But the road is still in the county road system. 

“I can tell you if they want it (Blaze Road) to remain in the county road system, that gate has to come down,” Willis said. “If it stays up, it’s a private road, and we aren’t working it.”

Gate still up

As of Friday, there was still a gate on Timberline Road,  though it was open. Weaver said it must be permanently removed for the road to remain a county road.

Ribelin said he can’t take down the gate because it’s not on his property.   

“That’s up to the county or the property owners, not me,” he said. “They told me to open the gate, and I did.”  

Weaver said there is another option to settle the issue. The five property owners along Timberline Road could petition the courts to make Timberline a private road and then gate it as they please.

“I can tell you the county won’t oppose that,” he said. 

County council can also petition the court to make it a private road. Council member Brian Carnes has asked that the matter be put on the agenda for the July 16 meeting to have it removed from the county road system.

However, Weaver said there is a catch to both options. Any of the adjacent landowners can object to the petition.

“How a judge rules, I don’t know…. But there is a way to remove it” from the county system, he said. 

Ribelin said his only recourse if the other property owners or the county move to make the road private is objecting to the petition. 

In talks with Ardrey, Ribelin said he couldn’t get a right of way or an easement to access his land.  

“With that – other than selling our property – what other choice do I have than in keeping it a county road? I guess I’ll just have to see how all of this goes,” Ribelin said.