Phelps County Commissioners tabled a petition to vacate a section of County Road 7530 west of Newburg Thursday morning during a public hearing.

Twelve residents in the Arlington Township west of Newburg signed the petition, which requests vacating the section of the road between the north right-of-way line of State Highway P and a point 225 feet south of the south right-of-way line of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad.

This section includes the Grotto Bridge over the Little Piney Creek that was closed by a commission order on Dec. 15, 2009, after a Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) engineer inspected it and suggested the bridge’s lifespan was over.

Another MoDOT inspection from March 23, 2011, lowered the superstructure rating of the bridge to 2. At that level, MoDOT requires the bridge to be closed.

The petition was initially read in early October and required a second reading and public hearing.

The county also received another petition signed by about 296 residents in opposition to vacating that section of road.

Gene Pahlmann, a resident who lives on Highway P, south of the bridge, led the effort to obtain the nearly 300 signatures.

In a letter to the county commission and county clerk, Pahlmann wrote, “By reopening the south end of CR7530 through to State Hwy ‘P’ there will again be accessibility by emergency vehicles to the seven (7) residences in the Little Piney Valley during inclement winter weather. This reopening should relieve the commission of the great personal liability they may have assumed during its closure.” 

J. Kent Robinson, a lawyer, who was among the 12 residents who signed the petition to vacate the section of road, noted the liability claim is not accurate.

Before the hearing, Robinson met with about 14 other people — both supporters and opposers — who came to the hearing. Robinson said that they could not come to a consensus on what should be done.

“We’d like to have a public road down there,” said Robinson, who said he attended as a resident and landowner. “We’d like to have a bridge down there that met state specifications and we’d like to be able to use it and we’d like the rest of the public to be able to use it. That was our position as petitioners three years ago.”

In 2010, Robinson said he and petitioners asked the county to find money to repair or replace the Grotto Bridge, but “that funding did not materialize.”

Robinson said he understands that the county commissioners have their priorities and that they try to find money to fund their priorities.

“I think everybody in this room agrees that as far as we’re concerned, the Grotto Bridge is the No. 1 priority in the county, but I don’t know if the county commission is necessarily going to agree with that and I don’t know if the rest of residents of the county would agree with that as well,” Robinson said.

If there is not a reasonable prospect of fixing the bridge so that it can be used by the public, Robinson and the other 11 petitioners stand by their request to vacate the road and bridge, which would revert it back to the Richard J. Myers family, the adjoining landowners on both sides of the county road.

The Myers family has offered to enter into an agreement with neighbors that would spell out who and how the road will be maintained, who will insure it and who will pay the associated expenses.

Robinson said the Myers family has offered him and any other willing participant the right to use the bridge as private property for about $100 a year each.

That compares to an engineer’s estimate of $750,000 for a new “proper” crossing because of the depth of the water there, according to Presiding Commissioner Randy Verkamp.

Verkamp worried that $100 per year per participant may not be enough to maintain that road, especially if it floods.

District One Commissioner Larry Stratman also asked if the agreement among neighbors would stipulate what types of vehicles would be allowed to use that bridge, such as school buses, fire trucks or logging trucks.

Robinson said the Myers family also has agreed that “if the county does come up with money at any time in the future, they will enter into a legally binding stipulation that they will dedicate that roadway and revert it back to the county for that purpose. They won’t make the county go through condemnation. They won’t make the county pay for it again.”

Robinson said this way, the bridge is no longer a “thorn in their (commissioners’) side. It’s no longer their problem,” but warned that some residents in the area worry that once the road is vacated, it will no longer be a concern of the commission. Robinson said if the road is vacated, he wants to commissioners to continue to look for ways to find money for the bridge.

“I’ve been patient for three years for something to happen and what needs to happen is money,” Robinson said.

“We won’t forget the people down there. Just the trip around there is significant,” said Stratman, who added that he understands the inconvenience to residents.

Rich Myers said that a normal three-minute trip before the bridge was closed has turned into a 25-minute detour around the bridge.

“The reality of the situation is this ... we have decaying bridges all over the county,” Stratman said.

“Quite frankly, our pecking order on those becomes traffic flow ... the situation with the Grotto Bridge is the traffic flow down there is very, very low.”

Stratman said it likely won’t be the case that the county can find $750,000 over the next few years.

Thursday’s meeting was the first for new District Two Commissioner Gary Hicks, who agreed with Stratman.

“I’m new on this commission, so I’m not real sure of how to react on this, but I don’t see a bridge being built there for a long time unless there’s some pennies from heaven,” Hicks said.

Verkamp said, “We’ve been fighting this for so many years trying to find a solution for it.”

At the end of the discussion, Stratman said he would like to see the agreement between the Myers family and the county to reclaim the road if funds become available for a bridge before a decision on vacating the road takes place.

Robinson asked for approval to vacate the road subject to an acceptable agreement to reconvey the bridge.

Verkamp then said the commission would seek advice from county counsel and agreed to meet again in two weeks with property owners — Jan. 17 at 9:30 a.m. in the county commission chambers.