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Road Issues Discussed by Farmers, Town Council at Recent Town Council Meeting

By: David Deschesne,

Fort Fairfield Journal, June 1, 2011

Fort Fairfield currently is charged with maintaining around 100 miles of road within the borders of its double township. This is the same amount of road neighboring Presque Isle maintains with a population base of nearly three times that of Fort Fairfield’s. Coupled with a dwindling taxpayer population, is the problem of original road construction that is causing the local roads to be unable to keep up with the demands placed on them while the taxpayers simply don’t have enough money to properly repair and maintain them to today’s standards.

When the roads in Fort Fairfield were first built, thirty to forty years ago, they were simply mud paths and field roads the citizens of that time decided to put asphalt on. There was no rock or gravel base built because the heaviest trucks at the time were flat bed potato trucks carrying a maximum of 55 barrels of potatoes. Today, farm equipment has gotten exponentially heavier, with potato trucks increasing to 300 barrels of potatoes, traveling on roads that were never designed to carry them.

While the roads do okay under the increased weight when the land is dry and set, springtime planting has presented a bit of a conundrum for the Highway Department as the town attempts to balance the needs of the farmers with the needs of the citizens who use those roads to travel while the roads’ subsoil is wet and swampy and unable to support any appreciable amount of weight.

The town of Fort Fairfield recently sent a letter to the local farmers to explain the situation, the requirements behind posting of roads and extended an offer for them to present their views to the town council. “It is important for the farmers to share with the council what their concerns are. I think that above all, it is not our intent to hinder their ability to make a living,” said Fort Fairfield Town Manger, Dan Foster. “Our hope is that we will be able to work cooperatively with farmers to protect our roads and allow them to run their businesses.

Several farmers showed up at the May town council meeting to explain their position on the use of the roads and the position of those in the agricultural community.

The town has suggested a 40,000 pound limit on trucks that are hauling seed, lime or fertilizer during the spring when the roads are posted. However, John Griffeth, from Griffeth Farms suggested that would be detrimental to the farmers' bottom line since buying and taking delivery in bulk is what keeps their costs competitive. “Lime's around $65.00 per ton and comes out of St. John. If we had to call our lime supplier and tell them there's going to be a 40,000 pound limit the lime would go from $65.00 per ton to probably $90.00 per ton and would put us at an economic disadvantage,” Griffeth explained to the town council.

The delivery trucks currently deliver 60,000 pounds of lime at a drop. The same problem appears with fertilizer. “If you told me we had to go 40,000 pounds, instead of the delivery costs being $15.00 per ton, they would probably be closer to $30.00 per ton, again putting farmers in Fort at a disadvantage,” said Griffeth. “My brothers and I in the last ten years have invested a lot of money in this town and, unlike a lot of businesses that have come to Fort, none of us have come in here and said we're just starting out and we'd like a tax break. Every time the tax bill's due, we pay our taxes. I feel that the Ag industry has to be the largest industry in Fort right now, paying taxes, and I think we should be getting more support than letters like this.”

Griffeth said if his farm had to comply with a 40,000 pound weight limit last year, it would have potentially cost them $300,000. “This year I could take you over to our banker and show you that if we were $300,000 in the negative I wouldn't be standing here talking to you about this concern, my concern would be something different than if I was going to be able to haul potatoes off the Hopkins road.”

Griffeth explained that most corporate farmers in the area who contract for either McCain Foods or Frito Lay are held to a 3 percent profit margin, which is only realized under perfect scenarios. “Perfect scenarios never happen in farming and we're being held to three percent. If all the weather went fine, and everything went fine and this weight limit actually got put in, that would put somebody under the three percent margin on any farm in Fort and it wouldn't be financially feasible for you to farm in Fort, you'd have to sell the land, or do something.”

Kyle Blackstone, lives in Caribou but owns farmland and a warehouse in Fort Fairfield. Blackstone told the town council his concerns are on the roads. “They're real rough due to heavy traffic. I realize that there is a small budget here in Fort and there's only so much money to go around on the secondary roads but the fact of the matter is machinery is getting quite heavy. We're seeing four axle trucks and it might not be very long before we see five axle trucks and tractors and harvesters are getting larger. We all realize in the Spring we have to be careful until the land dries but the secondary roads really could use a little help. Not just a patch job but maybe going out and doing small construction out there.”

“I agree, our roads are terrible. But, for us to be able to put the infrastructure in the roads so that it saves the pavement is just too cost prohibitive,” said Foster. “The biggest issue is when the frost is coming out of the ground, it's just like jelly. For example, where the Green Ridge Road broke up, the pavement was two inches thick. It wasn't that the pavement wasn't there, it's that what was underneath is was not able to support that weight.”

Fort Fairfield Highway Department Chief, George Watson says there are currently 55.31 miles of town-owned roads in Fort Fairfield that carry farm traffic, most of which are of the original paved mud path construction. He explains the costs to rebuild the roads are simply not something the inhabitants in Fort Fairfield have the money to do. “Total construction of a twenty foot roadway, for excavation of twenty-four inches and replacement with compacted gravel, replacement of all cross culverts, ditching, fine grade and placement of three inches of pavement, mulch and seed you could be looking at costs ranging from $400,000.00 to $450,000.00 per mile,” said Watson.

To rebuild all 55 miles of farm traffic carrying roadways to handle today's weight loads would cost the town of Fort Fairfield approximately $24,750,000. The current Highway Department budget for road repair is $135,000.

“What we're trying to do is come up with something that is not going to throw the farmers under the bus - or under the tri-axle - but also do what we can to stretch what we have for dollars to work with as far as we can,” said town council chairman, David McCrea.

Town council member, Kim Murchison said it wasn't an easy decision to send out the letter to begin with. “We understand that the farmers are important to our town but we don't know what else to do. What do you do when you don't have finances and you have people complaining about the roads and you don't want to raise taxes? You've got to start somewhere and if farmers have suggestions, we're more than willing to listen to them.”

The council will take the input and decide what they'll want to do. If there's going to be a change to the local ordinance on road weight limits, it would be introduced at the June meeting, there would be a chance for a public hearing and a vote in July. “The farmers will get plenty of notice and it will be at the direction of the council,” said Foster.



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