When the Zaganis went to look at a home on Lakewood Drive, off of County Road, several years ago, they decided to buy it before they even walked in the front door.
"My husband fell in love with it when he stood in the backyard, before he even stepped inside, he wanted to buy it," says Kathy Zagani. The wooded area around the neighborhood, which includes a large tract of forest owned by the Regional Water Authority, offers privacy, close proximity to a variety of interesting animals and birds, and a serene retreat for those who enjoy the great outdoors.
But the serenity of the neighborhood has been compromised over the past year as the dirt road extension of County Road, a town-owned road, has increasingly become a source of concern among some neighbors.
Unmaintained road serves as mud trap part of the year, and magnet for teenage drinking parties for part of the year
Those neighbors say they worry that, even though the dirt road is not maintained by the town and in parts of the year is dangerously impassable, it shows up on GPS as a route option. They say that people have driven down there, only to get stuck at times of the year when the mud is thick enough to pull in a car over the hubcaps.
Other times of year, when the dirt road is navigable, neighbors say that kids drive down there to drink and have unsupervised parties.
Neighbors also worry that people with criminal intent could use the road to secret a car if they are interested in breaking into a house on County Road or nearby roads, which include Blueberry Hill Drive, Dorset Lane, and Devonshire Lane.
Calls to town remain unanswered
They want the town to put up a gate to prevent motor vehicle access in and out of the dirt road extension on the Madison side. They called the Regional Water Authority and were told that, since it's an accepted town road, that the town would have to put up the gate.
Zagani said she called town hall three times, and stopped by town hall once to find out how to go about requesting a gate, but has not received a return call or any information on how they should proceed from town officials.
Madison Town Engineer Michael J. Ott said Monday that he believes a request to install a gate on a town road should be made to the Board of Selectmen.
Residents gathering petition
"To my knowledge, a municipal legal traffic authority (in Madison, the Board of Police Commissioners) would not have the authority to take such an action. The BOS would have to consider such a request and typically would consult with Town Counsel and the Town Engineer," he said via email.
Zagani, upon hearing about that Monday night from Patch, said she would take her request to the selectman's office. She is in the process of getting up a petition from people in the neighborhood to support putting up a gate on that road.
Some of the children who live in the neighborhood are so worried about the kind of people being attracted to the surrounding woods that they are afraid to go outdoors and are urging their parents to move, those parents say. Then, in early January, the concerns of people in the neighborhood mounted after a break-in.
Back door broken open with brute force
Kathy Zagani arrived home that day to find some Godiva chocolate on a kitchen counter, according to the Madison Police Department report of the incident.
She was certain it had not been there when she left earlier that day, so she grabbed her phone, and her two young children, and raced out the door, "in fear that someone might still be in the house." She called 911. When police arrived, they did a quick search of the house, and found someone had broken down the back door, shattering the double-paned glass, and knocking the door off the hinges, probably by throwing a shoulder to it and breaking it open with brute force.
Unsure as to whether someone was still in the house, police too left and called for reinforcements. When police searched the house, they found someone had ransacked the master bedroom and closet, taking a radio, iPod, computer, camera, jewlery, and jars of coins, among other items.
Worry that the woods could be used to park a getaway vehicle
The incident is still under investigation. But the burglary heightened the worry that Zagani and her neighbors had about the dirt road extension of County Road. They worry that people with criminal intent might be able to escape easily through the woods, to a vehicle parked where it could not be seen by others in the neighborhood.
One of Zagani's neighbors, Colleen Corniello, said she has become increasingly concerned about the dirt road extension over the past year as more and more strangers from outside the neighbohood appear to be disappearing down the road, and emerging from it. She has three children who catch the bus right near the entrance to the dirt road portion of County Road.
"There are always people coming and going there," she said. She said it seems to her that the activity has increased over the past year, as the number of vacant houses in the neighborhood has increased. She said she and her children are afraid of who they might encounter down there. She said some of the activity appears to be suspicious, involving multiple vehicles, and items being transferred from one vehicle to other vehicles, then disappearing down the dirt road.
Not sure which is worse, lurking or hiding behind a tree
She said that sometimes the people using the dirt road appear to be lurking or, worse, they do things like hide behind a tree when they see someone looking at them. "Before I felt safe down here," she said. "Now I always have the alarm on at the house when we're at home. My daughter doesn't want to be left alone in the house."
She said once this winter she saw two men walking up from the dirt road, when it was freezing cold out. They had no coats. "One was smoking like it was his last cigarette," she said. "He said he was a hiker and that his therapist told him he should hike." Neighbors called police, they were stopped and residents were later told by police that the men had criminal records, she said.
Zagani said she feels that police are doing a good job following up and investigating the burglary. She said she was told there was another burglary in the area of Opening Hill Road in Madison that was similar to hers.
Neighbors becoming more vigilant, quick to call police
Zagani and Corniello said that one positive development that has come out of this is that neighbors are now more vigilant, are more apt to communicate with each other, and that they are getting to know each other better. They are also quicker to call police when they see something that doesn't look right.
"Before, when I saw something, I didn't call," Corniello said. "Now I call."
Zagani said she does too, and that she is getting to know more of her neighbors as she makes an effort to collect names on the petition.
Increasing price of gold makes jewlery a tempting target for thieves
"The police told us that there has been an increase in thefts everywhere because the price of gold has quadrupled," Zagani said. "Criminals can go to a pawn shop and melt down the gold in one day, they told us."
Neighbors said they plan to continue to press the town to put up a gate to block off the dirt road portion of County Road, both for their peace of mind when it comes to security, and also for safety's sake.
"I had a party for one of my children and a friend with an SUV drove down there when her GPS told her that was the way to go," Corniello said. "This girl got totally stuck in the mud out in the middle of nowhere with who knows who around. The car was underneath the mud it was so bad. It took hours to get her out of there. We were just glad she was OK."
More than 100 incidents reported on Lakewood Drive and County Road over more than two years
Madison police say that there have been 57 burglaries in Madison since January 2010, and that the only one in that area of County Road was the one at the Zagani home on Lakewood Drive in January. In addition to that one burglary, there have been 21 incidents reported over that period of time, including six suspicious vehicles/people, on Lakewood Drive. There have been 87 incidents reported on County Road in that period of time, including eight suspicious vehicles/people, including three in 2011, and one arrest for breach of peace, according to police records.
In addition to the incidents in their own neighborhood, residents say they are aware of burglaries in nearby Killingworth and Durham, including a string of several over the summer, and then again several months ago. While there's no indication that they are related, they said, the reports make them nervous.
Neighbors say that when Madison police are called about suspicious activity, the response is generally very quick.
Some children not allowed to walk alone in neighborhood
"The police do come out here when we call," said Lynn Piekarz, who lives on Lakewood Drive. "But we do want a gate up over that portion of County Road. Then vehicles would not have access to that area."
Piekarz said that her concern about activity on the unimproved portion of County Road has risen over the years to the point where she won't allow her teenage daughter to walk to a friend's house nearby without an adult. "My daughter wanted to walk over to Dorset and I said absolutely not," Piekarz said.
She said there used to be a gate up, separating the improved portion of the road, which ends near Lakewood Drive, from the unimproved portion of the road, which runs toward Guilford. She said she thinks that it may have been put up by a private property owner and that it may have been taken down by the town, but she said she was not sure about that.
Hunting camp and logging areas
She said there also may be a hunting camp along the unimproved portion of the road, but that she believes that the camp can be accessed from the Guilford side. She said she also thinks there are logging camps back in the woods.
She said she has seen enough strange people going and coming along that road that she is worried. She used to hike down there with her three children, but stopped after she encountered someone wearing a clergyman's collar who was back there with a younger man, she said.
"Where did they come from? I got so nervous, I put the kids behind me," she said. She said she and the kids started calling out for her husband to make the people think he was out there with them, even though he wasn't. She said she often hears cars at night that get stuck, revving their engines, trying to get free from the mud.
"Make it a real road, or put up a gate"
"The kids go down there, then they get stuck," she said.
She said her daughter once got off the wrong highway exit while coming home from college, and that the GPS directed her through the unimproved portion of the road from the Guilford side, and that she got stuck in the mud. "It was a $500 tow job to get her out of there," she said.
Piekarz said the people who live along Lakewood Drive and County Road are self-sufficient and don't normally ask for much help. During the snowstorm that hit the town in October, residents used chainsaws not only to re-open Lakewood Drive, which is private, but also County Road, which is a town road.
"If we can take care of it ourselves, we will," she said. "But we need some help from the town on this one. Either make it a real road, or put up a gate."