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Residents, county lack cash to repair road

Residents in the Cape Ferrelo neighborhood north of Brookings have been struggling for two months to address damage along Sundown Road incurred after last November’s storm washed out a portion of the road – damage the county can’t afford to repair.

Homeowners there have placed road closure signs, logs and cones in the area to alert drivers to the danger, which occurred after the Nov. 20 storm washed part of the narrow gravel road down a 300-foot embankment. Several were at the county commissioners meeting Wednesday to ask for help.

Residents west of the slide must now drive down to Highway 101 and up Cape Ferrelo Road – a journey of about 6 miles – just to get their mail farther east on Sundown Road. Trash trucks have to make the longer loop to access houses closer to the highway, as well. 

“What if we need a fire truck in the middle of the night?” resident Athena Johnsen asked. “They’d have to go all the way around. And we still have to use the roads. The neighbors have been getting together and putting gravel there; how long can we do that?”

County commissioners had no answers for them, either, noting that Sundown Road is a “local access” road the county is under no obligation to repair.

“The homeowners don’t have the financial resources to fix the road,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith. “And unfortunately, the county doesn’t have the financial resources to fix the road either.”

According to County Roadmaster Dan Crumley, the only obligation the county has to maintain a local access road is to provide signage where it meets a county road.

“There are county road departments in serious trouble all around the state,” he said.

Commissioner David Itzen said he’d heard some county roads in Oregon are down to gravel because counties can’t afford to pave them.

Commissioners wondered if they would set a precedent by repairing the road, thus prompting others along other local access roads to request repairs. Alternately, they wondered if they could be found liable if they don’t repair the road and someone is seriously hurt on the steep incline off the shoulder of the road.

“You can spend the money, but you have to be specific in the resolution,” said County Attorney Jerry Herbage, regarding precedent. “Every situation is different. But the net effect is more human nature. You’ll get requests for others on local access roads.”

The cost of placing warning signs and a few orange cones in the affected area would cost “a couple hundred dollars,” Crumley said. Even then, signage could imply to drivers that the county is aware of the problem and not doing anything about it.

“A couple hundred dollars in signage could potentially open us up to a couple of million dollars in risk,” Smith noted.

“You get some of the weirdest tort claim notices you’d ever see in your life,” Herbage said. “If you don’t take action (on the road), it’s easily defended. This is discretionary: You do it or you don’t do it.”

Residents in attendance at the meeting all said they didn’t know what they were going to do now, other than perhaps install signs of their own and hope the slide material on the roadway stays put.

“It’s just a matter if the slide stays stable,” Johnsen said. “And if it goes?...”

“This is an unfortunate situation,” Crumley said. “It’s an act of God that happens to all of us.” 

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