Scott County Commission had the opportunity to swiftly, fairly and cheaply end the developing brouhaha over Litton Covered Bridge Road east of Huntsville when the issue was before the county legislative body last spring.
Despite the undeniable truths of the controversy — Litton Covered Bridge Road is a rough, rutted road to nowhere, that serves no useful purpose to Scott County’s taxpayers — County Commission rejected a petition to close the road. The dozens of Scott Countians who turned out to lobby against the road’s closure were successful in pleading their case to the commissioners.
It’s easy to argue for something based on emotion. Many who would like to see Litton Covered Bridge Road remain open are fueled by the nostalgia of visiting Paint Rock Creek, the waterfall and the long-since-destroyed covered bridge as a kid. It's hard to fault their desire to see the road left open. But County Commission doesn’t have the luxury of making decisions based purely on emotion; it is charged with making decisions that are grounded in what is best for Scott County’s residents and taxpayers as a whole.
Now, with a chancery court ruling that the road is, in fact, a county road and must remain open, the ball is back in the county’s court. Make no mistake: last week’s ruling did not end the Litton Covered Bridge controversy. It merely marked the beginning of a new chapter — a chapter that begs the question of who is responsible for the cost of maintaining the road.
The landowners whose property borders either side of the road — Steve and Marla Howard — have long stated their intent to build rental cabins on the property. Their proposal would have relieved Scott County of the responsibility to repair and maintain the road, instead making the Howards responsible for its upkeep. And if the Howards decided at some future date that they wanted the road to become a county road again, laws would have required that they build the road up to a certain standard before the county could have reassumed ownership.
Now, though, Scott County is responsible for the road. County Commission cannot reasonably argue to keep the road and subsequently decline to fix it. That could ultimately result in yet another lawsuit, and perhaps one the county is less likely to win.
That’s where the question comes into play: who is going to pay for the repair and upkeep of Litton Covered Bridge Road? It won’t be the Howards; they were relieved of that responsibility last spring, when County Commission rejected their petition to close the road. That means it will be the taxpayers who pay to fix this road to nowhere, in some form or fashion.
Scott County Road Superintendent Dick Sexton estimated last spring that it would cost $70,000 to properly repair the road. When push comes to shove, that $70,000 will have to come from either his budget or from the county general fund.
For perspective, a one-time cost of $70,000 would require almost 2.5 cents on the county’s property tax rate to generate, if it were coming from the general fund.
For further perspective, the county’s road department operates on an annual budget of about $2 million, which is funded almost exclusively by Scott County’s share of the state gasoline tax. That $2 million, which Scott County does not supplement with local tax revenue, does not go far; many of Scott County’s roads are inadequately maintained because that money does not go far enough. The cost to repair Litton Covered Bridge Road would be about 3.5 percent of the road department's annual budget — for a road that currently benefits no one.
So if the cost responsibility for Litton Covered Bridge Road falls into the road department’s lap, which roads will the department be forced to neglect in order to fix this rough, rutted road to nowhere? Will it be the road to your house or ours that the road department will be forced to neglect in order to repair a 4x4 road that dead-ends at a creek?
It’s an inconvenient question. But it's a question that will have to be answered. It's just a matter of when.
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