Resident claims CAO told him: “You could sell your house and move.”
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
An effort by Councillor Richard Rybiak to include the repair of Poth Street in the 2018 budget was defeated by Council last week, meaning that it will be at least 2019 before the road is re-opened. Only Councillor Catherine King voted with Rybiak.
Town Staff recommended the project be deferred until 2019, as initially revealed in the draft budget released in December, but Poth resident Bruno Villalta was given the bad news even before this.
On December 5, heavy winds felled a tree across a section of Poth, marooning several homes (including Villalta’s) between the closed bridge and the fallen limbs.
The next day Villalta, who is 75, went to Town Hall to speak with staff about the issue.
“I talked to [Director of Public Works] Andrea Clemencio and the CAO [Darren Ottaway],” says Villalta. “And I was told that there wasn’t any money, and that it wouldn’t be done until 2019.”
Villalta says that he asked the two what he was supposed to do, explaining that his wife is in a wheelchair and that he has a heart condition. A fallen tree or heavy snowfall could mean that an ambulance can’t reach them. There are currently several precarious looking trees along the same section of road.
“And the CAO told me, ‘Well, you could sell your house and move.'”
(Ottaway did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Just before press time, Pelham’s Public Relations and Marketing Specialist, Marc Macdonald, confirmed that Ottaway and Villalta spoke, but that the CAO asserted he did not tell Villalta that he could sell his house if he was unhappy. Due to a copyediting error, the print edition of this story asserts that a witness to Ottaway’s remarks declined to comment; in fact, Macdonald and Ottaway were contacted, and only the CAO declined to comment.)
Villalta says that he doesn’t want to sell his house.
“I bought a property on a two-way street, not a one-way street.” He says he knows that the Town isn’t obligated to re-open the closed portion of the road, but had hoped that it would still move quickly.
“When the trees were down, we were blocked in for forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes—that’s the difference between living and dying,” says Villalta.
After the road was first closed last April, Villalta says that Mayor Augustyn told him that the road would be reopened within weeks.
All throughout the summer and early fall, Villalta was told by the Town that repairs remained possible for 2017. When it became clear that a 2017 fix wasn’t going to happen, Villalta hoped for action in 2018.
After Rybiak’s motion failed on Wednesday, the Mayor suggested that residents of Poth could “find solace” in trying to have their homes reassessed and their taxes reduced.
To Villalta, this comment is tantamount to suggesting that homes are less valuable on Poth now that the Town won’t re-open the road, noting that the Town’s CAO has told him that if he doesn’t like the situation, he could sell his house and move, and the Town’s Mayor has told him that his house might not be worth as much anymore.
Not only did the defeat of Rybiak’s motion last week indicate that the road won’t be reopened this year, there was some suggestion that Poth’s closure could be even lengthier. In written comments, Ottaway asked Council, “Is this repair going to create wealth? Do the nine parcels generate wealth?”
At a meeting with several Pelham residents earlier this month, Ottaway said, “Even if we had fifty billion in the bank, I’d be hard pressed to recommend that project to Council at this point. It doesn’t make any practical sense, whatsoever…Sulphur Springs is not a priority for us right now, and neither is Poth.”
Ottaway said that residents of Poth need only turn the other way out of their driveways.
Ottaway spoke of the “good old days,” when culverts could simply be put in the ground without extensive oversight.
“Municipalities had done it on the cheap, resulting in accidents, lawsuits, and eventually government regulation. In order to meet the regulation, we’ve got to spend a million bucks.”
Ottaway said that he’s just posing a question: “Is it a responsible use of taxpayers’ money to replace a culvert for one person because they chose to live in an area that is in a rural setting?”
Ottaway asserted that he was only asking the question, not responding to it. But in the same meeting, he seemed to give an answer.
“They’ve exercised their constitutional right to live wherever they want, and yet now their expectation is that everyone else has to pay for that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
In this meeting, Ottaway called a home in the area a “bad investment.”
“You chose to live there,” he said, addressing a hypothetical Poth resident. “That’s your problem. I’m sorry, that may sound harsh.”
Ottaway said that residents in rural areas are subsidized by Fonthill residents, since the taxes paid by rural residents aren’t even enough to cover the cost of plowing snow on their streets.
Villalta and his neighbour, Steve Jevcak, take issue with the suggestion that the repair boils down to whether spending the money in a rural area is a responsible investment.
“It’s not the Township of Fonthill, it’s the Town of Pelham. We’re in Pelham,” says Jevcak, calling it a reasonable expectation that the Town maintain all of its roads, regardless of where they are inside of the boundaries.
Rybiak expressed a similar sentiment during discussion in Council, after Mayor Augustyn and Councillor Gary Accursi speculated that spending the money to repair Poth was not the best use of funds.
“I’m not sure that this expenditure is quite as discretionary as some are suggesting,” said Rybiak. “This isn’t like we don’t have [the road] now, and we’re deciding where to spend the money or where it will make the biggest impact. We have a road. People live on a road. People who live there have particular needs and concerns. I think we ought to open it sooner rather than later.”
Rybiak conceded that the proposed $1 million cost was a stumbling block for the project.
Last week, several Councillors asked Director of Public Works Andrea Clemencio if any sort of less costly fix was possible. Clemencio said that it was not, though added that her department would continue to look at other options.
Steve Jevcak went to Town Hall to talk about the repair of the culverts.
“I’ve been inside them to look,” he said. “They’ve failed at the bottom and so the sides have constricted in. The culverts are smaller now, which is why the material above them sunk and the road caved in. But the way those culverts were built—with long bolts on the inside—was so that parts of them could be replaced. All you’d have to do with these is put jacking posts inside to push the walls apart, put the new piece over the failed one, and then re-align the shape of the culvert. Then pave the road and it’s good for another forty years. They’re not going anywhere.”
Jevcak lived on the road when the existing culverts were installed.
“They assembled them right on the street. We had old hippie vans back then, and we could drive right through the culverts,” he says.
“I know I’m old school, and that now everybody’s liable for everything. I know things have to be done by the book,” says Jevcak, though he added that he was frustrated and felt he was not being listened to when he went to the Town.
“I got very upset,” says Jevcak, who was eventually asked to leave.
“If I had seen someone acting like I was, I would’ve thought they should be thrown out too. But still, they weren’t listening to me.”
The road was first closed when a crack opened. The Town erected wooden barriers to stop cars from driving over it. Months later, a resident of the area filled in the gap with loose asphalt.
“Someone did that so that it would be passable for emergency vehicles,” said Jevcak. “The wooden barriers were still there. But then when the Town saw that it had been temporarily repaired, they came and put concrete barriers up so that no one can pass.”
Jevcak acknowledged that some may see the closed road as a minor inconvenience, and that it even cuts down on traffic in front of his house.
“But I calculated it out—it adds a couple kilometres to my trip each day, and you multiply that by however many days the road is closed,” he said.
Jevcak also pointed to a topsoil business that operates on both sides of the bridge. “He used to be able to bring his backhoe across the bridge to get to his property. Now he has to go all the way around the block with the backhoe.”
Bruno Villalta first recounted his meeting with Ottaway to the Voice on the day that it occurred, but said at the time that he wanted to wait and see if the repair could be added to the 2018 budget.
In explaining why he wanted to hold off on going public with his interaction with Ottaway, Villalta said that he worried doing do would push the repair of the road even further into the future.
“You don’t want to antagonize them too much, because then they will punish you for it.”
But now that it has been confirmed that no repair will be forthcoming this year, Villalta said that he wants the rest of Pelham to be fully aware of his situation.
When Rybiak’s efforts was defeated, and after the Mayor suggested requesting a tax reassessment, Villalta left the room silently after sitting through over two hours of budget discussion.
“I appreciated Rybiak’s efforts, and the vote of the other Councillor,” said Villalta later. “I still have faith that the rest of Council will come to their senses and do something.”