Residents' tenacity helps pave the way

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Debbie Peyok couldn't drive her vintage Mustangs without scratching them or getting dust all over their custom paint jobs. Maria DiFatta spent thousands to replace blown tires, fix cracked windshields and realign the front ends on her family's vehicles. Dust coated their homes.

The culprit? The gravel that covered the road in front of their northern Carroll County houses.

Carroll County went a decade without paving any of its 92 miles of gravel roads. But a few years ago, the two women began hounding officials - in DiFatta's case, even tossing a shredded tire on the floor of a county office.

Now their stretch of Leppo Road is a smooth, glimmering expanse of black asphalt with a vivid double-yellow stripe down the center.

"It's a beautiful road isn't it?" asked Peyok on a recent afternoon.

"There's no living with us now that we have yellow lines on our road," added DiFatta, beaming.

The women and their families have lived the before-and-after of a project that turned a rocky country lane into what most people think of as a road.

Before it was paved, the stretch of Leppo Road between Turkeyfoot Road and Old Hanover Road presented a daunting challenge for drivers. One could almost feel tires deflating and alignment shifting as the gravel jostled the car.

The jarring experience contrasted with the placid setting of dewy meadows and horse lanes that frames the road, north of Union Mills and just a few miles from the Mason-Dixon line.

The road's wicked bends included one that the DiFattas nicknamed "Swiss cheese corner" because the surface was so pocked with holes. Every year, it seemed, drivers skidded off the road and into the wooden fence that surrounds the DiFattas' farmland.

The changing of the seasons brought new tortures. In the winter, ice formed in the gravel's crevices and the road became impassable. In the spring, rain turned the road into a spongy, squishy mess that granted only a little more traction than the ice. In the summer, the road dried out and dust filled the air, caking on window sills and seeping through screens.

Autumn was all right, DiFatta said.

DiFatta, her husband, Frank, and their five children moved to Leppo Road from Carney in 1992, seeking space, peace and quiet. Neighbors told them that the road was to be paved shortly, so they didn't pay it much mind.

Then, the car problems began - a flat tire here, a cracked windshield there, a tendency to drift to the right. DiFatta estimated that each of the family's seven cars needed two front-end alignments every year, and that tires wore out after an average of 15,000 miles.

Peyok moved to Leppo Road from Reisterstown in 1994 and encountered many of the same problems. A self-described clean freak, she couldn't stand that the road coated her cars with dirt, dust and scratches every time she ventured out. She and her husband collect Mustangs - they have 10 - but didn't dare drive them for fear of irreparable damage.

The women occasionally shared their irritations about the road with neighbors, who told them to be patient, told them that the government in Carroll worked at a leisurely pace. It was not until both became fed up that they really got to know each other.

"She called me one day and said, 'I understand you want the road paved. Tell me what I gotta do,'" DiFatta recalled.

DiFatta said she would draft a petition if Peyok would walk the neighborhood and collect signatures. They also agreed to call the county roads department any time a pothole appeared or the road became impassable because of weather. DiFatta estimated that they called at least once a week.

On a county survey about gravel roads, DiFatta wrote: "Look at this road today and be ashamed of a road in the year 2001 in this condition."

As Peyok canvassed the neighborhood, she found most people supportive of the paving. A few said a paved road would invite more cars and faster drivers, thus endangering the street's country feel. But only four out of about 40 refused to sign the petition, she said.

The duo wondered if their efforts would go for naught until this spring, when Peyok spotted an article that said the county was set to begin paving gravel roads again - and Leppo would be the first.

After a decade of indecision - paving is expensive and some residents like the natural speed control provided by gravel - the county announced plans in May to begin paving its busiest gravel roads. The roads can be a nuisance to county workers, who must reshape them almost every time it rains, said Benton Watson, chief of Carroll's bureau of roads.

Watson and county Public Works Director Doug Myers told the commissioners that five roads, each traveled by at least 200 cars a day, should be priorities. The commissioners agreed, including $500,000 in this year's budget for paving. Work on Leppo began in July, and road crews are just now putting the finishing touches on shoulders for the new surface.

The county has not begun paving any other gravel roads, and Myers said he wasn't sure road crews would get to another before winter.

Road crews used a new technique to pave the road , tearing it up with a 600-horsepower motor attached to metal teeth known as a "reclaimer." The machine ground the gravel into a more stable stone surface, and workers then covered it with 4 to 5 inches of standard blacktop. Watson said the process is more efficient than building a whole new road in many cases.

DiFatta and Peyok said they're pleased as can be with the county's efforts.

"Every time we went by those workers, we waved and gave the thumbs up," DiFatta said. Occasionally, she added, road crews would apologize for holding up traffic. "I just told them, 'No, no, looks good to me,'" she said.

The women said they feel relieved every time they cruise down the rut-free road or realize they don't have to scrub dust off their cars or window sills.

"Thank God, thank God," Peyok said. "I think it's wonderful."

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