By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
More and more homeowners are discovering that, after a few years, the allure and prestige of living on a private road loses its charm.
It’s not easy to find reliable contractors to plow snow in the winter and fix potholes in the warmer seasons. It’s hard to keep up with cracked and crumbling roads, and poor storm drainage, too.
HOA board members and property owners are sick and tired of spending time and money trying to keep up with maintenance of their private roads and storm drainage. And, let’s face it, no one enjoys collecting money from homeowners to pay for upkeep of private streets.
So now the Village Council of Winnetka (Illinois) is under intense political pressure to take ownership of private streets, relieving private homeowners of their ongoing burden.
‘Unfair’ financial burden
From the homeowners’ perspective, it’s unfair that their high property taxes help the Village pay for maintenance of public roads in Winnetka. Yet the Village won’t even touch the narrow roads in their neighborhoods.
Even the Director of Public Works acknowledges that the Village’s current patchwork system of road and storm drainage maintenance isn’t working.
Water backs up in certain neighborhoods when it rains. Working around the private roads is inconvenient. Bumpy roads aren’t safe for emergency responders, and they bring down property values.
Now the Village of Winnetka is discussing the possibility of setting up a Special Tax District for private roads owned by the Ardsley-Pelham Association. It’s another example of a growing trend toward de-privatization of services that were once routinely delegated directly to homeowners, who often pay the costs through private HOAs.
To gain a deeper perspective of the issue, I’ve provided several points of reference in today’s post.
Related: Cities can’t deny it: privatized HOA infrastructure not holding up as planned
Homeowner says private roads are ‘financial burden’
Winnetka Village Council, held a Study Session at Village Hall on March 12, 2019.
Council members reviewed an information packet on all the private streets located in the Village. See this 74-page PDF file for details.
Included in the packet: letters from homeowners.
Read a portion of one letter to Village Council from Ron Apatoff, President of the Ardsley- Pelham Association for the past 12 years.
Many residents on Ardsley and Pelham roads pay a higher tax bill than a good percentage of the homes in Winnetka (based on home values) yet do not receive services that every other resident in the Village receives. We are expected to pay for our own street paving, curbs, storm drainage, rodding, signage and snow plowing..among other items. The financial burden it puts on the Winnetka residents living on Ardsley and Pelham roads is material and not fair. In addition, the time the Ardsley & Pelham Association must devote to keeping up with this level of detail is challenging.
What was an idea passed years ago has become a way for the Village to avoid paying for maintenance on these private Winnetka roads, which greatly add to the character, allure and tax coffers of the Village. In effect, we are subsidizing all of the Village services for every other resident. This practice should be updated to put private road Village residents on an equal level with every other homeowner in Winnetka.
Apatoff gets to the heart of the matter. Winnetka property owners are being double taxed for road maintenance and storm water management.
He and his neighbors have figured out that living on a private road isn’t really a selling point, after you consider the difficulty and expense of maintaining it.
Ardsley/Pelham was probably sold buyers as a private haven, and their charming, narrow road as a status symbol.
But a private road is really a way for a developer, co-investors, and home builders to save money in the construction process. A skimpier road requires less asphalt and lower labor costs. That leaves more room for profit on home sales.
Director of Public Works lists pros and cons of taking over private streets
Also in the packet, a report from Steven M. Saunders, Director of Public Works/Village Engineer February 26, 2019 to Winnetka Village Council:
There are some advantages associated with dedicating private streets to the Village:
• Dedication simplifies and improves the Village’s ability to oversee construction activities.
• Dedication enhances the Village’s ability to provide stormwater and other infrastructure improvements.
• Dedication reduces the number of “special service” requests associated with private streets.
There are also some drawbacks associated with dedicating private streets to the Village:
• Even if the Village incurs no up-front costs in constructing the street and appurtenances, the Village will forever be responsible for all future repair and reconstruction of the road and storm sewer.
• The Village may receive reduced property tax payments once the property is reassessed to remove the road property from private ownership.
• The Village will incur increased annual maintenance expenses once the roadway and storm sewer become public assets to be maintained.
• In accepting such private streets, the Village may need to re-evaluate its street standards to align more closely with a “narrow estate lane” standard that is common on private streets.
The Village has a policy for dedication of private roads. It starts with the private street owners (usually an HOA or Neighborhood Association) paying their share of the cost of bring their street(s) up to public standards.
In Winnetka, that means making the road wider and thicker, possibly adding curbs and sidewalks.
In lieu of lump sum payment to the Village from the private road association, the Village can work with neighborhoods to establish a Tax District. In Illinois, a Special Service Area (SSA) is the most common way to fund construction of roads and storm drainage facilities.
In general, the SSA is a special taxing district to repay for upfront investments in public improvements that benefit a specific geographic area. P. 55-56 of packet explains the SSA (used primarily for retail or central business districts)
Instead of each member paying a (huge) flat fee to the HOA for major repairs, homeowners will pay, over time, a tax based upon their property’s assessed value.
In other words, some homeowners will ultimately pay a bit more and others may pay a bit less. And there’s no guarantee that the HOA fee will be eliminated or reduced to make up for SSA taxes.
For these reasons, it can be challenging to get homeowners to unanimously agree to a SSA Tax District.
Winnetka worked with other HOAs in the past
In the Study Session packet, Village Council members were able to review the status of other HOAs and neighborhood associations with private roads in Winnetka.
In fall of 2008, Trapp Lane Maintenance Association also complained to the Village about paying taxes to subsidize the cost of public Village roads, in addition to trying to keep up with their private roads.
The minutes of a 2008 meeting reflect an acknowledgement that developers construct substandard private roads that are too narrow and with poor drainage, making them difficult for owners to maintain.
Substandard streets have also created problems for utility companies with easements.
The minutes document statements from the Village Manager and residents of Trapp Lane. They all agreed that stormwater drainage has been a problem for decades, and one that cannot easily be resolved with the patchwork of private roads connecting to public roads. Plus, the current system creates gaps where the Village has no control over storm water drainage from private roads.
Ardsley-Pelham Association’s request
Homeowners ask the Village Council to modify its public road standards to make it less costly and less burdensome for them to dedicate private roads to the Village for public maintenance.
Although the Village doesn’t want to add to its costs or lose tax dollars, it did agree to a 50% cost split with Trapp Lane about a decade ago. Ardley-Pelham residents are hoping for similar consideration.
Homeowners On Winnetka’s Private Roads Ask Village To Cover Costs
A neighborhood association wants to change the village’s rules about bringing private roads up to code before converting them to public.
By Jonah Meadows, Patch Staff | Mar 11, 2019 5:09 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2019 11:49 am ET
Homeowners On Winnetka’s Private Roads Ask Village To Cover Costs
Winnetka Village Council STUDY SESSION Village Hall
510 Green Bay Road March 12, 2019
7:00 PM (74-page PDF file)