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Lots of Snow, Little Salt Make for a Long Winter in Sag Harbor

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Heller_Salted vs Unsalted Roads 2-16-14_0852_LR-5

The transition between the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, which was clear,  and Sag Harbor Main Street, which remained covered with hard packed snow on Sunday. Michael Heller photo

By Stephen J. Kotz

Sag Harbor Village Superintendent of Public Works Dee Yardley said he was more than ready for the February thaw that arrived Tuesday and is expected to last through the weekend—even if it is accompanied by periods of heavy rain.

The rain and warming temperatures that were expected to hit 50 degrees by Friday mean that workers will be pressed into service to clear snow and slush from the mouths of catch basins to prevent flooding and fill the seemingly hundreds of potholes that are appearing in the wake of the cold and snow.

But the thaw will also give Mr. Yardley and his workers a respite from both the need for near nonstop plowing duty—and the rumble of complaints that have surfaced over perceptions that village roads have not been as well maintained this winter as Sag Harbor residents have grown accustomed to.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the condition of Sag Harbor’s roads,” said Sag Harbor Village Trustee Ken O’Donnell, the village board’s liaison to the public works department, this week.

“The criticism stops with me. I’m the mayor, I take full responsibility,” said Mayor Brian Gilbride, “but let’s remember we’ve had brutally cold days with lots of wind blowing” that has limited plowing crews’ ability to keep ahead of the snow. The mayor added that this winter has been one of the worst in history and pointed out that more than 40 inches of snow have fallen in multiple storms since January 1.

Mr. O’Donnell traced the problem to a simple lack of road salt. “For the past three years, the village has not bought salt,” he said. “The reason for that is that apparently the Suffolk County health department is all over the village for its salt shed and has ordered the village to bring it into compliance.”

In the past, he said, the village would simply order “40 tons of salt each year and just pay the $1,000 fine as a cost of doing business.”

Mr. O’Donnell stressed that he was not criticizing the performance of Mr. Yardley or his department but said the village was not providing them with the tools they need to do their jobs properly. He likened the situation to giving a golfer a single club and expecting him to shoot par. “They don’t give you one club and tell you to play the course. They give you multiple clubs and tell you to play the situation,” he said.

Mr. O’Donnell said he was frustrated after he signed a purchase order allowing Mr. Yardley to buy salt on January 4 before going on a two-week vacation only to learn that none was purchased.

Mr. Yardley said there was a simple reason for that. The severe winter meant that municipalities across Long Island were running short of salt, and the state limited distribution to those that had signed up with the state to purchase supplies ahead of time, he said. Governor Andrew Cuomo “had state troopers at salt depots protecting them,” he said. “That stuff was like gold.” He said the shortages have since been relieved and salt is readily available again.

With salt hard to come by earlier this winter, the village relied on the Southampton Town Highway Department, which provided it with 10 tons of a salt and sand mix, and East Hampton Town, which delivered five tons of salt to help tide it over.

Crews were spreading some of that salt and sand Tuesday night when police reported black ice forming on village streets after the temperatures dropped below freezing, he said.

Mayor Gilbride defended the job Mr. Yardley and his crew were doing, despite the severity of the winter. “As far as complaints at the highway barn and the village office, there have been few to none,” he said on Tuesday. “As far as accidents in the village, there have been none.”

Mr. Gilbride said it was true that for the past three years the village has not been buying salt, but instead has been “tweaking” what it uses on the roads, substituting salt brine and a beet juice mixture for the typical salt and sand mixture it used to rely on.

There are two reasons for the change, he said. The first is the village wants to be more environmentally friendly and reduce the amount of salt it applies to the roads, which in turn, reduces the amount of runoff. Second, he said the village wants to avoid facing fines ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 for each time the county cites it for illegally storing salt in its salt barn. Although it has typically only been fined once a year, he said there is no guarantee county inspectors will not stop by more frequently if they think the village is not taking its enforcement efforts seriously.

Both Mr. Gilbride and Mr. O’Donnell said the village is struggling with whether to spend the money needed to undertake the necessary repairs to bring the salt barn into conformance.

Mr. Gilbride said the said the Raynor Group, a Water Mill engineering firm, had estimated it could cost $35,000 to $40,000 to repair the barn, which the village built in the 1980s.

Among other things, the county wants the village to replace the asphalt floor with cement, increase the height of an interior dividing wall from 6 feet to 7 feet, and install an interior and exterior ramp to prevent salt spillage, according to Mr. O’Donnell.

Both Mr. Gilbride and Mr. O’Donnell said they were at a loss to explain why the county was being so strict when it comes to reviewing the condition of the village’s salt barn. Mr. O’Donnell said he had seen barns in other villages and towns that have holes in the roofs and spaces in the walls through which salt mixture spills out on the ground.

“It’s frustrating,” said Mr. Gilbride, “we spent a lot money in an effort to get our barn permitted.” He said the village might find it more cost effective to use the barn to store equipment and build a new salt barn.

Mr. Yardley said village crews are continuing to mix bags of rock salt with water to create a brine he said works especially well as a pretreatment before storms but is only effective until there is 1½ inches of snow and if the temperature stays above 18 degrees. This year, he added, he has begun to apply the beet juice mixture to roads after testing it on the sidewalk in front of the Municipal Building last year.  The beet mixture continues to work down to 5 degrees.

With a budget of only $25,000 for snow removal, Mr. Yardley said he is limited in what can be done.

But Mr. O’Donnell said the village needed to do more  to assure that children get to school safely and that senior citizens are able to get in and out of town.

“Not everyone has four-wheel drive, not everyone has a pickup,” he said. “The roads, over the course of the last three years without using salt, are worse than they used to be. I think in the case of salt, you have to have it in your toolbox. There are certain things that make a municipality run and salt is one of them.”