Fairfield County may nix maintaining private shared driveways

WINNSBORO – Trying to explain an issue that sparked questions from members of the Fairfield County Council and unhappy comments from citizens at Tuesday’s county council meeting, county leaders say they are working on a solution to a dilemma faced over “common drives,” or driveways that are shared by multiple residences.

Traditionally the county has assisted with gravel and maintenance for these unofficial roads, but the legality of doing so is now in question.

“There are some concerns because these common drives, by their very definition, are private property, and there’s always a concern that a county would then turn around and… expend public finds on private property,” explained County Attorney Tommy Morgan. “That is actually expressly prohibited by the South Carolina constitution,” Morgan said.

Fairfield County currently has 68 named and about 50 unnamed common drives, according to Public Works Director Jonathan Burroughs.

Maintaining these roads is expensive for the county which is looking for ways to trim costs. The issue was on the agenda at the May 22 meeting, but council failed to pass the measure after Joe Wilkes addressed council, saying that after all these years of the county maintaining the roads and shared driveways, many in the county could not afford to maintain them.

County Council Member Peggy Swearingen, who noted that she lives “in the bushes,” asked what elderly residents of the county will do if the driveway maintenance they’ve long depended on is stopped.

“Where does that leave them?” she asked, of residents who have neither the physical ability nor the financial means to maintain their own roads – and are also likely to be the most at risk in the event that emergency vehicles were unable to reach their homes.

“It leaves them in a bad position,” Morgan said, “and this has cropped up in other jurisdictions in the state of South Carolina.”

Morgan said a legal case occurred in another county where the rationale for providing road maintenance was similar: to ensure emergency vehicle access for county residents.

“The ordinance was challenged before the court, and the court ruled that it was invalid and said you can’t do that,” he said.

He acknowledged that it’s a tough issue – and said county leaders are willing to get creative to help county residents in ways that don’t violate the law.

Unfortunately, he said, it’s also not as simple as allowing willing residents to deed road easements to the county: many of these roads are “goat paths,” barely wide enough for a pickup truck and not in compliance with drainage and other road construction standards, and sometimes with unmarked utility lines running along them.

“It’s a pickle,” Morgan said, noting that each one of the roads presents a unique situation.

The maintenance of common drives also came up during the citizen comment period, when county resident John Jones blamed county road maintainers for a drainage problem along one of them, which is known as Armstrong Road.

“The water’s running over the road coming underneath the house creating mold and mildew, and it’s been happening for some time because the county came down with their gravel spreader or their plow and tipped the crown in the road to run off the other side,” Jones said.

“So, we have water puddling on one side and running off the other side,” he said. “Not only is my property being flooded, the driveway’s being flooded. It’s a mess.”

He said additional maintenance is needed to the shared drive, and he wants the county to fix it.

Morgan, citing a lawsuit that occurred in a different county, said that not only the council as a whole but each individual member in that council was made to answer a contempt hearing, in which they had to explain why public funds were being used on private land.

Burroughs, the public works director in Fairfield County, said county maintenance of common drives has decreased in recent years due to budget cuts and the need to prioritize roads that are part of the county road system.

“We had to trim back on the common drives to focus on county roads first,” Burroughs said. “Also, whatever we could get to there on the common drives on an as-needed basis.”

Councilman Dan Ruff expressed concern about the legal implications if the county continues to assist with any maintenance on the common drives.

“We’re being made aware that something the county has been doing all these years could have been, all that time, illegal for the county to do,” Morgan said. “Once we have been made aware that it is illegal for us to do that, to continue to do that would be detrimental to Fairfield County and to the taxpayers and to ourselves.”

Morgan said that while the budget is currently center stage, something on this issue will be brought before the board soon.

“We’re working through these issues and anticipate that we’ll be bringing a newly revised ordinance that addresses some of the concerns that the council as well as the citizens have brought out,” Morgan said.

“We’ll continue to work on that and bring that before council. Understand that we’re getting toward the end of the fiscal year and we’re trying to push a budget across the goal line so to speak, but it will be within the next few meetings.”

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