Sometimes rustic is just too rustic.
That’s the case for some neighbors who live along a stretch of River Road designated as a rustic road, who say they are weary of the potholes and gray grit that coats their homes from this gravel road.
As part of preserving Montgomery County’s heritage, in 1996 the county designated nearly 100 roads as rustic and established the Rustic Road Program and Rustic Road Advisory Committee of seven appointed citizens to oversee it. Most rustic roads are paved. Senior Planner Katherine Holt estimated that fewer than 10 rustic roads are unpaved.
Toward the end of River Road around Poolesville and Dickerson, the pavement drops off to a gravel road, lined by farms and patches of forest.
This 5-mile section between Edwards Ferry and Whites Ferry roads is considered an exceptional rustic road, meaning that it meets rustic road standards and additional criteria for its historical and aesthetic significance. Nearby, a second 1½-mile section of River Road between West Willard and Mount Nebo roads, is also considered rustic.
These aren’t heavily traveled sections — part of the criteria for rustic designation — but some who live along it are frustrated by its condition.
“It’s in really bad shape,” said Keith Patton, who lives with his wife Audrey and their kids in Dickerson, along the gravel stretch of River Road. In the summer “it gets so dusty that you can’t see,” he said. “Especially when the air’s heavy it just engulfs the whole area... Everything around [the road] is covered in this grey grit, dust,” including the trees, crops and houses.
In the Rustic Roads Functional Master Plan, the criteria for rustic designation outlines that the road must be in a rural or historic area, be narrow and primarily for local use, and have low volume and a history of safety. To meet the low-volume threshold, a road could have up to 3,000 cars travel it on an average weekday.
River Road is believed to have been a Native American trail prior to being made into a road and is considered one of the county’s oldest roads, according to the master plan.
The stretch between West Willard and Mount Nebo roads was laid out in 1791. These stretches are at the northern end of a road that now runs over 30 miles from northwest Washington, D.C., to Dickerson, and is an important route in the area, especially further south where it is the main road between the Poolesville area, Potomac and Washington. The northern section is less traveled.
The Pattons question the safety of the exceptional rustic section of River Road and said they have called the county for maintenance many times over the past seven years but have been unhappy with the responses.
“Every time you email or call, they’ll come out and throw some gravel down,” said Keith Patton. But it washes away with snow and rain and doesn’t last, he said.
They would like to see the road paved, or, they suggested other alternatives that involve spraying asphalt or laying down used asphalt left over from repairs on other roads.
The Rustic Roads designation, Audrey Patton said, is “this big thing for the county to hide behind so that they don’t have to maintain it.” And although she said neighbors feel similarly, they’re spread out on big farms in the rural area and haven’t found a strong collective voice.
In a letter to the county Department of Transportation, Keith Patton also noted the respiratory issues caused by excessive dust.
Mason Hopkins, who lives along the shorter rustic section, wrote to the department that “in recent years, this stretch of road has continued to deteriorate to a point of becoming impassable in several places.”
But with roads designated as rustic, adjustments are limited.
“Any type of maintenance repairs that occur cannot change” the road, said Randy Paugh, chief of pavement management.
They regularly fill in potholes with gravel and regrade the road to level the surface, he explained.
“That’s the nature of that type of road,” he said of potholes and dust, “it just requires routine maintenance.”
Paving the road is an unlikely solution, not only because the road is considered historic, but also the costs of paving “would be astronomical,” Paugh said. “And then how many vehicles actually use that road? Does it warrant that level of investment?” he asked.
In response to the Pattons’ complaints, in 2007 the Rustic Road Advisory Committee recommended in a letter that the Department of Public Works and Transportation conduct a study on the road to determine how it could be improved. However, planning department staff who work with the committee could not find any information on a subsequent study. The only study found reported three accidents along rustic River Road between 2002 and 2006.
Audrey Patton said there are “at least a few [accidents] a year” that she believes are caused by poor road conditions.
The master plan for rustic roads does not outline a process for removing a road’s rustic designation.
Senior Planner Leslie Saville wrote in an email that she believes one road in Clarksburg was removed from the list at least several years ago because of intensified land use in the area. If a road no longer meets the criteria, for example, because land use changed or traffic increased, it could be removed by an amendment to the master plan, she wrote. Roads can also be added to the program, according to Holt.
To make the kind of changes some neighbors want to see, they would have to convince the committee that these sections of River Road no longer meet the rustic criteria.