COLUMBIA - Roger and Donna Hills wash their car once a week, maybe once every two weeks, if they can wait that long.
The Hills live on Moon Valley Road, one of several unpaved streets within city limits.
"You can't keep a clean vehicle," Roger Hills said. "I mean, as soon as you wash it, you come down the road one time, and it's already been dirtied again."
The dust that kicks up into the engine and onto the exterior of their car is at its worst when the city brings out equipment to grade the gravel leading to their house.
Last year, the Hills took their dust-control complaints to Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe. She then requested, at a Columbia City Council meeting in September, that the Public Works Department furnish a list of unpaved streets that still exist inside city limits.
The department searched high and low, north and south, east and west. It found about 9.66 miles of gravel roads in Columbia, and estimated it would cost the city $306,900 to pave them, excluding roads in rural areas or those already slated for improvement.
Hoppe suggested that the list, which was presented in a report at the council's July 7 meeting, be discussed in more detail during a council work session. No such session has been scheduled, but opinions regarding gravel roads have circulated among residents who have lived on unpaved streets for years.
Discussion by the Hills and other residents goes deeper than a simple debate over whether to pave their streets. Some residents are satisfied with their gravel road. Others appreciate the privacy an unpaved street provides, but still favor the prospect of pavement or better maintenance of their street.
Although the council might take action based on the Public Works report, Columbia's street maintenance policy still puts the financial responsibility on residents. "No dust control measures will be initiated by the city for unimproved streets," it reads.
The policy also requires property owners to petition the city for pavement. Essentially, any group that requests and receives pavement for its street must also pay for the improvement in the form of a tax bill, an extra assessment tacked onto annual property tax bills to pay for a portion of the project over a number of years.
City Manager Bill Watkins said the council has the option of improving an unpaved street without a petition but even then has authority to levy a tax bill. The city's standing policy is to maintain roads in the condition in which they enter city limits.
Moon Valley Road, Lambeth Drive and Coats Alley all appear on the list of more than 30 gravel roads and alleys presented to the council this month.
Grace Shields has lived on Lindy Lane for the past 40 years. She said the gravel on her road can create dust, especially in the summer, but she sometimes leaves her windows open anyway. Shields is satisfied with the city's maintenance of her street, which includes grading and replacing the gravel.
"It doesn't really bother me at all," she said. "I've lived here for this long" and have no complaints.
Roger Hills has lived on Moon Valley Road since he was born in 1948 save the 20 years he was in the U.S. Navy.
Roger Hills added that a car going more than 35 mph along the road will stir up enough dust to blanket everything in sight - trees, people and surrounding property - especially after the road is graded and dry, and depending on the weather.
"You won't see anything but white," Roger said. "You won't see the road. You won't see the golf course (that runs parallel to the road). You won't see anything but white."
But they say another solution to their concerns would be to pave over the gravel with a strong sheet of asphalt or have the city address dust control.
Pamala Hunter lives off Hinkson Creek Road at the northeastern end of city limits. The unpaved street rests right alongside Hinkson Creek. When the creek reaches flood stage, Hunter said, the water washes out the gravel and forms ruts in the road.
At 2.5 miles, Hinkson Creek Road is the largest section on the list of unpaved streets, but it is not included in the city's cost estimate for improvements because of its rural location.
"We have no water" system, Hunter said. "We have no sewers. We have no paved roads. So why should we be in the city?"
If Hinkson Creek Road is even considered for improvement, she said, the city should conduct a study to see whether pavement would be more effective and less problematic than a gravel road near a creek that she has seen uproot and move trees.
Roger Hills said he doubts Moon Valley Road will be paved in his lifetime. He thinks the property owners along the street would have a hard time paying the tax bill for improvements. And no one else will pay for it, either, he said.
Hoppe, however, said she hopes a work session on gravel roads would lead the council to explore a different policy for unimproved streets. Maybe 50 percent of the cost of improvement could come from a tax bill, and the city could pay the other half, she said.
"It just seems sort of odd to have unimproved roads that have been there forever, or for a long time, and the residents want to see them fixed," Hoppe said. "It seems sort of odd on first blush and second blush that the city didn't have a plan."
Is Watkins surprised by the fact that there are 9.66 miles of gravel roads in Columbia?
"Not in the least," he said.
He said council members will meet to discuss the city's gravel roads, but that ultimately, the council has only to wait for residents to request improvements.
"Unless the council wants to proceed and tax bill the maintenance, I don't see any other direction to go in, quite honestly," Watkins said, adding that, through the years, residents have consistently had to help pay for improving their unpaved streets.
"The residents along the way paid their share," he said. "I think it would be a big mistake to improve the roads without having people pay their share when other people did."