NEW MILFORD — For years, town residents were free to take sand from a pile at the Public Works department to throw on slippery sidewalks and driveways when it snowed. The idea was to make it easy to comply with ordinances requiring sidewalks be clear and walkable.

But some people got in the habit of taking more than the single bucket originally envisioned — far more, in some cases — and town officials decided to end the practice this winter.

“(Public works) relied on the honor system for people to fill one 5-gallon bucket at a time,” Mayor David Gronbach wrote in a Facebook post after residents wondered why the sandpile had disappeared. “In recent years, use of the sand pile has grown not just to people with sidewalks, but to people using it on private property that does not benefit the public at large.

“In addition, some people have been pulling up to the sand pile and loading their pickup trucks with the ‘free sand,” Gronbach continued. “The abuse of the town’s trust and property required some action.”

The town will continue giving sand in 70-pound bags to residents with public sidewalks, said public works Director Michael Zarba.

The program “will follow the original intention as stated in Code of Ordinances and be provided to residents owning a sidewalk that are required to make it safe,” according to a public works memo.

The “free sand” was never really free, officials said. They estimate the program has cost the town $12,000 to $20,000 worth of sand-salt mix over the years.

“Contrary to what people think, the sand is not ‘free’,” Gronbach wrote.

But it was construction at the Youngfield Road department headquarters encroaching on available space that pushed public works to amend the program this November, Zarba said.

Moreover, residents and overzealous area contractors often took far more than their bucket, he added. And there is no effective way to police the sand pile — such as allowing access during office hours — without still sparking resident ire.

As winter approached and resident driveways became slippery without town sand, several people took to town Facebook pages to complain.

“I hope Mayor Gronbach will rectify the public works decision,” one commenter wrote. “Many of our emergency volunteers depend on it to keep their driveways clean.”

“What happened to the free sand pile?” another asked.

“Little things like this take away the old-time, home-town feel of New Milford,” said Bruce Roache, a longtime resident who suggests the town move the pile, not kill it.

The sand is for the public benefit, not personal use, Zarba said. It was put there to keep residents from slipping on sidewalks, not keep their driveways clear.

“We know people were taking more than their share,” Zarba said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize them.”

Atop annual losses, the long-awaited Housatonic River trail project, or Riverwalk, is now under construction right near public works, and the department has already shifted things around for it, Zarba said.

The Riverwalk project is slated to be completed this spring, Zarba has said.

blytton@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3411; @bglytton