The End of the (Dirt) Road

To pave or not to pave? It’s a question that confounds town officials and residents alike in the small-town communities of Northern Westchester.



Jimin Han of Cross River says that she often seeks out dirt roads to drive on as she goes about her day. “On a sunny day, with horses grazing on one side of the road and daffodils lined up on the other, the unpaved roads fit the scenery better,” she says.

For Waccabuc resident Janet Heneghan, a neighborhood stroll can feel like a trip through time. “The dirt roads in this area are quaint,” she says. “They’re a throwback to my youth, when I would go to my friend’s in the mountains of
West Virginia.”

But her nostalgic feelings may very well fade this summer, as the Town of Lewisboro moves ahead with plans to pave some or all of the remaining dirt-road portion of Chapel Road, a three-quarters-of-a-mile stretch. For Heneghan and other residents in the Chapel Road neighborhood, the transformation from bumpy terrain to smooth asphalt may be hard to take.

Heneghan says, “I enjoy the feeling that we’re way out in the country, when we’re just an hour away from New York City.”

A foreign concept to many who live in the southern part of the county, dirt roads are part of the fabric of many Northern Westchester communities. Dating back to pre-automobile days, they are intertwined with the history of this region, and offer a physical connection to a time before such modern indignities as commercial thoroughfares and Walmart-anchored strip malls.

They are also fairly prevalent. Bedford currently has some 33 miles of dirt roads—nearly one-quarter of the town’s total mileage count, according to Kevin Winn, the commissioner of the town’s Department of Public Works. Lewisboro and North Salem each have 11 miles of dirt roads.

They are also, ironically, very expensive to maintain. Lewisboro Town Supervisor Charlie Duffy points out that deeply sloped dirt roads, like Chapel Road, are especially tough on a community’s budget. “Chapel Road alone costs about thirty thousand dollars to forty thousand dollars per year to maintain above and beyond what it would cost to maintain a paved road,” he says. “Dirt roads with steep slopes and heavy use have a lot of runoff. You’ve got to go down there with grading equipment and put down more dirt to fill in ruts and potholes, and then maintain the storm drains that get filled up with debris and silt.”

Dirt roads can be a particular headache in years when the spring thaw happens quickly (a situation that, thankfully, did not occur this year). “If it’s thirty degrees one day and then we have several days of sixty-degree weather, they can get very muddy, with ruts that are six to eight inches deep,” Winn says.

Last summer, Bedford officials briefly debated the idea of creating a “dirt-road district” that would have a separate, higher tax structure than the rest of the town. The idea was envisioned as a way to generate more revenue to pay for maintenance, but Lee Roberts, Bedford town supervisor, says it was eventually abandoned because it would have unfairly penalized dirt-road residents. “Do we have a scenic road district?” she asks. “You could have districts for everything. Everyone enjoys the dirt roads in some way.”

While maintaining dirt roads may cost more, they also may make your house worth more. Northern Westchester is an enormously appealing location for homebuyers, according to Robert Kesten, a sales agent with Vincent & Whittemore, a real estate firm in Bedford Village, who claims that “dirt roads are a vital selling point.”

Finding a way to preserve Northern Westchester’s dirt roads while mitigating the problems they cause seems a challenge worthy of Solomon. Town officials say they wrestle all the time with the question of when and where to pave, and search for new ideas to lessen costs. Bedford officials have investigated a new type of road material—a mixture of oil and dirt that would “look like dirt but act like asphalt.” There was concern, however, about the environmental impact of oily runoff from this material, and the idea never got off the ground.

While practical concerns regarding dirt roads may be addressed, intangible ones are less likely to be eased. “The pace of society has gotten so fast, and we’re all so interested in getting more done,” Heneghan says. “This paving trend is a way of trying to connect everyone even faster. Maybe it’s not the best way for us to go.”

Barbara Josselsohn is Scarsdale-based writer specializing in home and family topics. She made her first foray onto the dirt roads of Northern Westchester as part of her research for this story and came home no worse for the wear, except for a slight case of carsickness and the need to wash a very dirty SUV.