At the selectboard meeting held the same night, Ayers heard the board’s proposals to alleviate his situation in the event the discontinuation goes through. Ayers said he was considering them, but aside from the ultimate decision on ownership, he wants to be sure that the bridge is safe.
During Town Meeting, Ayers asked to speak about the town’s decision to relinquish ownership of the bridge on Ayers Road. He said that he lived in a house that was 200 feet beyond the bridge, with two people who used wheelchairs. According to Ayers, the bridge had fallen into a state of disrepair, and needed to be strong enough to support the weight of ambulances. Selectboard chair Peter Sebastian said that the selectboard thought the cost of repairing the bridge was too high to justify when only one home was served by the bridge. “The town decided to discontinue the bridge on Ayers Road,” said Sebastian. “The board was very concerned about pouring money into it.” Sebastian disagreed that ambulances could no longer pass over the bridge.
Moderator Dr. Bob Backus suggested that the conversation was one that could not be solved at Town Meeting, and that it might be best if Ayers talked with the selectboard face to face at another time. “He has tried that,” said former selectboard member Eugene Bills. “The town took over the bridge and road in 1938. Now he can’t get an ambulance across the bridge to his home.”
Ayers said the town placed a sign indicating that the weight limit on the bridge should be 8,000 pounds on top of the old sign that set the limit to 16,000 pounds. “In January, they put up that new sign, but they took it back down after we met,” he said. Sebastian said the selectboard had initially acted on a verbal report from VTrans to lower the weight limit but the town had subsequently been told by VTrans to wait for a final written report, which would determine a new weight limit for the bridge, before altering the old sign again. “From what I understand we had a preliminary bridge report from VTrans that the bridge was not in very good shape and they said, ‘You ought to consider lowering the limit.’ We lowered it at that time.”
According to the November 1, 2016 meeting minutes, the selectboard agreed to set the posted limit on the road at 3,000 pounds. However, town clerk Jackie Bedard said those minutes might be in error and Sebastian agreed.
A 2014 VTrans structural evaluation done as part of the inspection report of the bridge found that its structure was “better than minimum criteria” when compared to federal standards. In the summary it said the bridge structure was in good condition. However, on September 6, 2016, a VTrans inspection declared the bridge to be in poor shape due to the condition of two beams “that have moderate section loss. Beams should be repaired or replaced soon.”
In an email dated October 6, 2016, from Marc Pickering, project manager of District Two of VTrans’ Maintenance and Operations Bureau,to Greg Donna, head of Wardsboro’s road crew, Pickering said he would advise “the town to close the bridge immediately if that is what the inspectors advised when they were on site.” Sebastian said that he did not remember hearing any call for a road closure, and Pickering did not respond to calls for more information by press time.
Ayers said that he had listened to what the selectboard had to say at their meeting Tuesday night, and was considering their offer of assistance.“What they explained to me at the selectboard meeting was that if the town owns the bridge, the town would have to maintain it to state specs. It might cost them $100,000 or $200,000. From their point of view, and I can kind of see it, it is stupid to maintain the road for one home. They might have to replace all the beams, whereas I could maybe just weld some plates.” Ayers also said the selectboard had offered to find free beams for him if needed, and that he could apply for a home improvement loan from the town on favorable terms.
Sebastian confirmed that the town was looking to find replacement beams for free, and that repairing and maintaining a town-owned bridge would cost much more than what a private property owner would have to pay to maintain it at less than state specifications. He also confirmed that the town had a fund which Ayers might be able to use to fund repairs to the bridge. “My understanding is that he might be able to repair it in a short amount of time,” said Sebastian.
“They said that if the town owned the bridge and repaired it, they would have to do it to state specs, which would cost a lot more than if I were to repair it,” Ayers said.
This is not the first time a selectboard has considered this topic. Bedard wrote a history of the bridge as part of a report on the structure, and noted that in 1938 the selectboard turned down a request by Leon Cobb to build a bridge to his home which he had built near where Ayers’ house now stands. The selectboard at that time stated that the bridge and road construction would not be “for public good and the convenience of the inhabitants as it served only one home.” However, 19 residents signed a petition in favor of the town’s creating the bridge, and voters at Town Meeting that year approved the bridge construction. According to Ayers, the road became known as Ayers Road when the 911 address system went into effect, and was named after the residents at that time, who were his parents.
Sebastian said that the selectboard was striving to be fair to all residents of Wardsboro. “This only serves one home. It is not really a road as it does not carry general traffic. Have you seen the bridge? If you go farther down South Wardsboro Road you will see other privately owned bridges that the town does not pay to maintain or plow. The town has done considerable work on maintaining this bridge over the many years since it was created. It’s a matter of fairness.” Sebastian also said that the selectboard was not making the decision lightly. “This is not an easy decision. What we as selectboard members need to do and what we as people want to do, it’s not always the same thing.”