It’s difficult to know what to make of the fire hydrant dilemma going on in the City of Watertown.

There at least 136 fire hydrants that the city is going to paint yellow, instead of the standard red, so it is clear they are “private” hydrants. What is a private hydrant, you might ask? The easiest answer is one that is not in a public right of way or easement.

Cities as old as Watertown have grown up with a hodgepodge of different ordinances, ways of doing things and even handshake agreements, and, let’s be honest, not always the most careful oversight to make sure hydrants were built on public property as they should have been. But as cities get more sophisticated and the ethics of good law and professionalism hold sway, there are a lot of irregularities that get discovered, such as finding out the hydrant you thought belonged to the city is not on land where the city can legally service it without trespassing.

And fixing the problem would be expensive. Digging up pipes and rerouting them is an option that is in no one’s best interests, except construction contractors, perhaps. And what about the city using its eminent domain powers to take control of the land under the hydrants? This time, only lawyers not contractors would be the sole winners.

(The city is clear that even private hydrants are there to be used for the public good, so the fire department can save lives and property. At this point, no one is disputing that.)

But what should the city do? At this point, the city is trying a novel approach: Tell those property owners that they now must maintain “their” hydrants, and is even telling them how to do the work. And what happens if they don’t or don’t do it well? Good question.

Ultimately, we hope this idea of a two-tiered fire hydrants goes away, and the city works out private agreements for nominal fees in which the city does the proper maintenance of the hydrants and, in exchange, the property owner grants access to do the procedures it does so well.

Our hope is that this silly directive to have the owners care for the hydrants is really just a rouse to get the property owners to the bargaining table to work out a deal where both parties win, one in which the city does the work and the property owner grants access.

Only then can Watertown return again to the time when hydrants were all red and all was well with the world.

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