Many attribute the down-home charm and feel of Windermere to its dirt roads — but those quaint paths carved in the dirt are the result of hardworking town staff.
“There are some misconceptions about dirt roads — that they’re cheap and easy to maintain and that they’re good for the lakes,” Mayor Jim O’Brien said. “These are things that we’ve told ourselves for years and years and years.
“The reality is the real reason we have sand streets is because when the town was being built the money and the funds were not there to pave the roads like everywhere else was getting paved,” he said. “It wasn’t a priority.”
Windermere Town Council members were asked late last year to give feedback on the idea of selective paving for projects involving Bessie and Butler streets, but the council directed staff to keep the dirt roads as long as it makes fiscal sense. The town had previously done selective paving on Lake Street to reduce the impact of sediment draining into the lakes nearby.
“Windermere has always had the community kind of feel to it, and I think the dirt roads have actually contributed to that, because it has that old Southern homey feel to it,” Town Manager Robert Smith said. “The council at that meeting made the determination, ‘You know what? We want to maintain that as much as possible.’”
The town chose to stick with the roads that give Windermere that special feel, despite the hard work it takes to shape the roads and manage stormwater.
The elements can make maintenance difficult, Smith said, adding that paving would technically be easier and more cost effective.
“As far as perpetual maintenance is concerned, (paving is) less costly over the long term,” Smith said. “It might cost you more in the beginning, but as far as the maintenance, it’s going to lessen that, because you’re not out there every time a rain storm occurs.”
Public perception on the roads is ever-changing depending on the weather, Smith said.
“During the rainy season, we get the calls of, ‘The roads are muddy and there’s standing water,’” Smith said. “What some people have to understand is the laws of physics apply here like they do anywhere else as far as water and sand equals mud. We can’t grade mud, it’s like rubbing your hands (through wet sand) at the beach.”
The dry season brings its own challenges, too, Windermere Public Works Director Scott Brown said. When the dirt gets too dry, it resembles the dunes further up on a beach — that leads to some vehicles getting stuck on the roads, as well.
Smith said the town is tending regularly to certain segments of the dirt roads that see washouts — large openings that form in the roads after heavy rainfall erodes the dirt.
“These are several feet deep, to where vehicles can’t get through it,” Brown said. “These are public roads, so it’s a safety and general welfare (concern) to the general public, as well as to emergency resources.”
The town also needs to consider the environmental aspects, Smith said. The dirt absorbs oils, gases and whatever gets into the roadway. Smith said the town wants to make sure the system percolates the stormwater quickly and then puts it into the right areas.
“Water is going to push that sediment either into a retention area or — God forbid — into the lakes,” Smith said. “We want to prevent that as much as possible.”
Segments of Bessie and Butler streets tend to frequently see washouts because they sit at a lower elevation, and water goes downhill. It can be especially dangerous at night, because the dirt roads aren’t lit.
“We’ve had to tow cars out of areas that have been washed out, as well,” Smith said. “It’s a really big public safety issue, but we’ve done a great job on controlling some of those areas by making sure that we’ve placed an appropriate aggregate within that area.”
DOWN THE ROAD
Smith said a master plan would help the town better maintain the roads and respond to washouts. The town plans to create a “typical section” of road that would demonstrate to the public what the roads are going to look and feel like, Smith said.
“We’ve done a pretty good job over the last three to four years that we know where these issue areas are, so we try to stabilize them as much as possible, Smith said. “I think we’re at that point now where we need to come up with a master plan for the entire town when it comes to a typical section. Once we have that typical section in place, then we can come up with an overall master plan of how do we maintain these roadways — how to grade it, groom it, have a schedule on making sure that the swales are dug out to the appropriate depth that they were permitted for and that they’re cleaned out.”
O’Brien said residents may like the dirt roads, but that means the town has to reshape them in ways that effectively move stormwater to the correct areas.
“Over time, (the roads) get lower and wider and they change,” O’Brien said. “It’s unique, and it separates us from Hamlin. It’s a cool thing, but it does come with those challenges.”
A motor grader is used to direct the dirt to specific areas along the road. It can also level out new material to fill in holes. It’s all done to maintain the 3-inch crown on every dirt road, which allows rainwater to run off to the sides, Brown said.
O’Brien said the town will need to add dirt to the roads in certain areas to better control the flow of water. It would cost the town at least $200,000 a year to build the dirt roads back up to the level they should be to create the crown shape, Smith said.
“The cost would probably be variable between $2 (million) and $4 million for us to do that,” Smith said. “We’d like to focus on a typical section and work from there as opposed to just throwing dirt on a roadway without a plan.”
When it comes to the cost of paving a road, hypothetically, it all depends on the width of the road, the type of aggregate and other variables, Smith said.
“Some people say it’s a million dollars a mile for a paved roadway,” Smith said. “It’s not that much.”
Smith said a roads master plan would involve creating a capital improvements program, followed by focusing on the areas of most concern.
“This is not a five-year fix or a 10-year fix; this is probably a 15- to 20-year fix,” Smith said. “It’s going to be an ongoing thing, but our goal is to create a typical section that is a dirt road with a swale system that adequately distributes the stormwater where it needs to go and hopefully reduces the amount of perpetual maintenance.”
Smith said he hopes to see the pilot projects for the typical sections moving forward in early spring.
WORTH IT IN THE END
The town’s winding dirt roads are part of what gives Windermere its identity, said Smith, adding it’s what sets it apart from anywhere else in Orange County.
“We’re like Mayberry in Orange County — it’s what draws people to Windermere,” Smith said.
“I think what council committed to is we understand the uniqueness and the specialness of the dirt roads for downtown Windermere and it’s something we’d like to preserve, but we want to do that in an effective way,” O’Brien said.
“Sometimes, doing what people want is not always the easiest thing to do, but it doesn’t mean you don’t do it,” O’Brien said. “We work it out. We serve at the pleasure.”