By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Photo of Buffalo Valley Rail Trail, Union County, PA www.traillink.com/trail/buffalo-valley-rail-trail/ managed by Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority bvrec.org/ The authority was jointly established by the Borough of Lewisburg and East Buffalo Township. www.ebtwp.org/eb/Departments/Recreation.aspx%5B/caption%5D
Today’s blog serves as a reminder to readers that you do not need to buy into a homeowners association in order to enjoy recreational amenities. In fact, the photo above was taken last spring at a public walking trail not far from my home. See the caption of the photo for more information about the Rail Trail and a full array of recreational facilities within a mile or two from most homes.
The real estate industry that promotes planned communities is fond of claiming that home buyers want shared amenities.
But what about the many thousands of existing, more mature HOAs with neighborhood parks and recreation facilities that go largely unused? How many of these are well maintained, and how many are not?
Allow me to share an example of a city that is exploring its options to shift cost of recreation and parks maintenance from HOAs to a Special District.
According to the Daily Chronicle, Bozeman City Council (Montana) is planning to establish a Parks District, to operate and maintain not only city owned parks, but also parks currently maintained by HOAs.
Bozeman to study shifting HOA-managed parks to city maintenance district
By Eric Dietrich Chronicle Staff Writer Mar 19, 2017
Bozeman leaders will likely approve a contract Monday to have a consultant study the cost of maintaining the city’s extensive parks and trails network, exploring the feasibility of a parks maintenance district that could take over responsibility for some parks currently kept up by homeowners associations.
City commissioners will vote on spending $30,000 on the study, through a contract with Billings-based Peaks to Plains Design. The contract is on the commission’s consent agenda, reserved for non-controversial items generally approved without debate.
Since the mid-1990s, briefing materials say, neighborhood parks included in new Bozeman subdivisions have been largely set up so they’re maintained by homeowners associations, or HOAs — in contrast to older parks under the jurisdiction of the taxpayer-funded city parks department.
According to Daily Chronicle, Mayor Carson Taylor recognizes the inequity of double taxation of HOAs, whose homeowners pay assessments to maintain their local parks, but also pay property taxes to support City parks and recreation.
Bozeman City Council is considering the Special District in order to potentially relieve HOAs of maintenance expenses for parks, to more equitably distribute the cost of City-wide park maintenance among all taxpayers, and to generate additional revenue for future maintenance of a Trails, Open Space, and Parks (TOP) project, approved by voters in 2012.
According to a report by the Trust for Public Land, Billings and Missoula have already shifted responsibility for maintenance of their HOA parks to their respective City Parks Districts, with average annual costs per taxpayer of less than $20.
I wanted to know more about the process of cost shifting from HOAs to the City, so I read the 36-pages of briefing materials intended for City Council’s May 20, 2017, meeting. According to the City briefing, beginning in the mid 1990s, Bozeman required that HOAs maintain their local parks, even though those parks were dedicated to the City. However, the City also anticipated that one day HOA-maintained parks would be maintained by the City through a Parks District.
BACKGROUND: Since roughly the mid-1990’s, code-required parkland dedications through subdivision development have been dedicated to the city but largely maintained by the development’s homeowners associations (HOA). Many of the final plats dating back to that date as well as current plats include a statement to the effect that, “The Homeowners Association will be required to maintain all dedicated parkland until such time that the city creates a citywide parks maintenance district or equivalent funding mechanism.” Furthermore, in November 2012, voters approved a 15 million dollar Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOP) Bond to develop new community parks, add new trails, create trail connections, make water quality improvements and build multi-use recreation fields.
Bozeman City Council plans to pay $30,000 for a Parks District feasibility study that encompasses the following:
The Parks and Trails District Feasibility Study will assess different ways in which the city may approach funding the maintenance costs associated with four options delineated below:
1. All Inclusive: funding maintenance for all dedicated city park property;
2. Limited Inclusive: funding maintenance for all dedicated parks and trails but omitting portions of dedicated park property that do not serve recreational purposes (e.g., as entryways and other functions within the development);
3. Non-HOA: funding maintenance for all parks and trails currently maintained by the city and all TOP parks and trails, leaving currently HOA maintained parks to be maintained primarily by the HOA while potentially implementing specific maintenance standards designated by the city;
4. TOP Only: funding maintenance for all TOP parks and trails only.
In addition, the Parks and Trails District Feasibility Study will compile all existing park master plans into one records retention file.
The contractor performing the Feasibility Study, Peaks to Plains Design, notes that contacting Officers and Agents of HOAs in Bozeman will be challenging, since none of these association are officially registered with the City. Their primary sources for HOA contact information will be the County Board of Realty Regulation and CC&RS filed with Gallatin County.
Peaks and Plains also astutely notes that even if the City of Bozeman assumes full maintenance responsibility for HOA maintained parks, there is no guarantee that HOAs will reduce assessments accordingly.
Theoretically, the reduced maintenance costs of the HOA would be passed onto homeowners. However, if an Association has been deferring maintenance of the park, chances are good that there would be no reduction in HOA assessments.
On the other hand, a park that is well-maintained by a Special District would presumably be safer and more attractive, thus increasing the desirability and value of nearby properties.
Another advantage of shifting maintenance and ownership of HOA infrastructure and parks to Cities and Special Districts is that HOA duties may be reduced to the point where the Association no longer provides any essential services. At that point, dissolution (termination) of the mandatory HOA becomes more feasible, if homeowners elect to do so.
However, the feasibility study does include the possibility that HOAs could remain saddled with maintenance of parks. Note option number 3 above: if the City decides to leave maintenance of parks with HOAs, it also plans to mandate specific standards to ensure the HOAs actually do an adequate job. Is it realistic to think that the City would actually enforce maintenance standards?
My sense is that Bozeman’s Mayor and City Council are inclined to assume “all inclusive” maintenance, provided the added cost is adequately offest by tax assessments, with minimal cost to taxpayers.
Looking forward to follow up reports.