APACHE COUNTY — The Apache County Board of Supervisors is struggling with a vexing question: How can the county avoid getting stuck with the bill to upgrade and maintain hundreds of miles of deteriorating dirt roads serving only a handful of residents?
The question came up during a half-day board study session held this week before the Arizona County Supervisors conference in Maricopa at the Ak-Chin Casino and Resort. Arizona County Supervisor’s Association is the chief lobbying group for counties statewide.
Both the Apache and Navajo county boards of supervisors sent contingents of supervisors and top administrators to the annual conference, something both counties attend. The conference is held in a different place each year. All the state’s counties remain effectively hostage to the state and federal government for much of their funding and well as mandates to offer services, so the county supervisor’s association lobbies intensely on their effect.
Both Apache and Navajo counties opted to have board study sessions on Monday, while most other supervisors and staff ventured forth on field trips. Both boards discussed posted agenda items, mostly related to budget updates. No members of the public attended either work study sessions, which were open to the public and the media. A reporter for the White Mountain Independent shuffled back and forth to the two study sessions, which each lasted from about 11 a.m. to about 3 p.m.
The supervisors and key department heads met for several hours to discuss a variety of issues, including the overhaul of the existing policy on roads.
Apache County is laced with dirt roads, often hastily bladed access routes to subdivisions that never quite made it. Most of those roads don’t meet county standards when it comes to things like the composition of the roadbed, drainage, culverts, grade, signage and other factors.
Sometimes, just putting in a roadbed, culverts, shoulders and other improvements to meet county standards can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per mile.
“We have thousands of miles of roads that are not county-maintained roads,” said County Engineer Ferrin Crosby. “ A lot of it is just vacant land, with maybe a house here and there. They are maybe bladed, but there’s no gravel, no culverts. We have pressure from the public to have the county take that responsibility. And it’s just going to increase.”
So Crosby suggested an overhaul of the existing policy to add very specific criteria – like the number of cars traveling on a given section of road per day or the number of houses reached by that road or connections to existing county-maintained roads.
District III Supervisor Travis Simshauser said, “The county has adopted miles and miles of road in the past and when someone pulls a building permit somewhere along that road, we have to go in and make it a full-blown road, even if it’s just for one person. We need to be able to downgrade those roads to primitive roads so we can maintain them appropriately. We need to make things clear for the general public – so when someone comes in and says, ‘I want you to adopt my road,’ it’s clear what needs to be done.”
State law sets the basic ground rules for county-maintained roads once they’re in the system. So Simshauser asked County Attorney Michael Whiting whether state law limits the rules counties can adopt for either bringing roads into the system – or converting a designated county-maintained road into a primitive road, with lower maintenance and construction standards.
“As long as it doesn’t undercut any state law,” said Whiting. “The state standard is the minimum – you can put additional requirements on top of that. And if it’s a new board, they can change the policy again. But you can’t go below the minimum of what’s allowed by state law.”
The three supervisors present all approved the idea of overhauling the policy as proposed by Crosby, although the board didn’t take a vote. Crosby will now work on proposing specific criteria before bringing the issue back to the board of supervisors for changes in the existing ordinance. The public can then weigh in on the proposed changes at a series of public hearings and votes before any changes take effect.