By DOUG NURSE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Gordon Hunter lives on one of Milton’s 30 gravel roads, a quaint reminder of slower days and simpler living. “I think they’re an asset to the community,” he said. “It keeps the country atmosphere, and it keeps traffic down. They’re very scenic. They’re pastoral and peaceful. If they pave it, it would change the complexion of the community.”
He’s not alone in his love of unpaved byways. The city’s Comprehensive Planning Advisory Committee lauded the gravel roads and even suggested that developers build more of them.
Public works staff recently wanted to keep gravel from migrating from gravel roads onto paved roads by adding asphalt to the dirt roads’ first 100 feet. But two city council members objected because motorists wouldn’t be able to see that it was a gravel road.
Gravel roads may be aesthetically pleasing, but they are tough on the city pocketbook. Milton’s 13 miles of dirt roads eat up about a quarter of the city’s road maintenance budget in a normal year.
“From a maintenance perspective, it’s more cost-effective to have a paved road,” said Public Works Director Dan Drake. “With a paved road, you can defer maintenance for a while. With a gravel road, there is no deferrable maintenance. You can’t defer it even for a couple of days.”
The roads are prone to potholes, rutting and washboarding as water rushes over the flat surface, carrying supporting dirt and small rocks with it. The city has to go over the gravel roads twice a year.
“People say, ‘I love your road,’ but I feel kind of guilty because the city of Milton doesn’t have much money,” said Marcia O’Shaughnessy, who lives on a unpaved road.
Gravel roads tend to be narrow so people drive over the same tracks, creating ruts.
You can fix a pothole in a gravel road by filling it with dirt, but that’s a very short-term solution. It requires grading, followed closely by a roller-compactor, followed by a truck that sprays calcium chloride to keep the dust down.
“Most cities are trying to eliminate gravel roads, because they’re so costly and hard to maintain,” Drake said.
City Councilman Bill Lusk lives on a dirt road, and likes it. “It’s why we moved out here,” Lusk said. “I grew up in the country, and it takes me back to where I was as a kid. I think if we were to try to pave them, we would hear from people who are against it.”
He said gravel roads are popular with walkers, equestrians and bicyclists because they draw less and slower traffic.
The city has included many of the roads as part of its citywide trail program as “linear parks.”
Some folks, like Rise Hersheran, who lives on gravelly Nix Road, said she would like to see the city blacktop her roadway. She said her elderly parents have a hard time navigating the potholes. “The fact they aren’t being maintained where it’s safe to drive on makes them functionally obsolete,” she said. “There’s a safety factor. There was no problem when Fulton County was in charge of it. The city can’t afford dirt roads.”
Drake estimated that up to 25 percent of all complaints he receives are over the rough state of the gravel roads. But some want the roads to look like they’ve been targeted by the Eighth Air Force.
John Lynam, who lives on unpaved Summit Road, said he doesn’t understand people complaining about gravel roads. “If you don’t like dirt roads, then why did you come out here in your Porsche and live on a dirt road?” he asked. “There’s a lot of other places you could build the same nice house. Move to a gated community. I like it because it’s close to nature.”
O’Shaughnessy said she has mixed feelings about whether to pave them, but a rugged road does have its advantages. “The condition of a gravel road is bad more than good,” she said. “If it was paved, a lot of people would use it besides residents. If the road is rough, then people have to slow down.”
Others fear that if the road is paved, their zoning will change so that instead of minimum three-acre lots, the minimum would be one-acre lots. Some of the roads’ biggest supporters are people who don’t live on them, Drake said. “If we send crews out to grade, we’ll have 10 people tell us good job, and 10 people will tell us to go away,” Drake said.
Drake estimated it would cost $2 million to $4 million to pave the city’s existing gravel roads.
He is hoping to find a compromise that would allow him to somehow cap the roads to make them water resistant, but still make them look like gravel roads.
“We can have the rural feel of the roads, but have it be closer to the maintenance schedule of a paved road,” he said.