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Private roads, public problem



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October 27, 2010 - Brandon Twp.- There are more than 160 private roads in the township. Property owners on those roads are left to decide how to maintain them— who plows the snow in the winter, who grades the road in the summer, how often work is done, how much to pay for the work.

In theory, it would seem everyone who has a stake in the road should share the cost of upkeep. In reality, this isn't always the case.

When Chris Basela moved in to his home on LeGault Boulevard 12 years ago, the road was well-maintained and everyone kicked in to keep it that way. But then, as more people moved on to the road and existing homes were sold to new owners, things changed. Some residents chose not to pay for maintenance of the road, Basela said, either because they were unwilling or unable. Over the years, it has only gotten worse, with the ones who do pay having to foot a larger and larger share of the bill.

"The people who are not paying get the advantage of a road in good condition," said Basela, who currently handles road maintenance on behalf of his neighbors, contracting for services and collecting the money to pay for it. "I am struggling to collect because of the economy or people just not wanting to pay the money. I have tried peer pressure and sending certified registered letters, but you can't force anyone to do something they are unwilling to do."

The road has declined in the last couple years and LeGault residents have tolerated a "very bombed out road" because of a lack of money to maintain it. Fed up, 28 of the 31 residents of LeGault signed a petition requesting that the township board designate LeGault Boulevard a special assessment district. If the township board were to approve the request, road maintenance fees would be assessed and collected by the township treasurer as part of the yearly property taxes on all the properties on LeGault (in addition to the 31 residences, there are also four vacant properties).

Earlier this year, the township board approved a similar request from residents of Shelmar Lane. However, during the township board meeting Oct. 18, following a public hearing on the matter, a third reading of a resolution to make LeGault a special assessment district failed, by a 3-2 vote. Treasurer Terry Beltramo and Boardmembers Cheryl Gault and David King voted no. Supervisor Kathy Thurman and Clerk Jeannie McCreery voted yes. Boardmembers Bob DeWitt and Tom Stowell were absent.

King said he sympathizes with the LeGault residents and understands, because he used to live on a private road in Groveland Township where not all the residents paid for the road.

"The experience I had, we concluded that our lives were better spent chipping in a few extra bucks and not worrying about the people who didn't pay," said King. "Is this a big enough issue that all the township should be involved? The total number of people that live on private road is probably not more than 15 percent (of the total township population). But what we would be doing is committing the township resources, owned by all the taxpayers, to doing something that I don't know they think we should be doing... Do we want officials involved in managing private roads in the township?"

Beltramo agreed.

"I voted against it because I don't think we should be a collection agency for the people on that street," he said. "I think we made a mistake on Shelmar for the same reason. I voted for (Shelmar) because it was a passionate plea and I had a weak moment. I already know there will be problems."

Beltramo said he recently spent four hours preparing the S.A.D.s the township currently has ready for the tax bills. Besides Shelmar, which is a special assessment district created to solely fund maintenance of the road (as LeGault would be), the township has four S.A.D.s— Upper Bushman and Lake Louise, assessed for weed control in the lakes, Presidio, which is for road improvement, and Zarieda Street, which has an assessment for a sewage disposal system.

"If you ask any other township, they hate S.A.D.s because it's a lot of work," said Beltramo. "Once we've opened the flood gates, we could get them all... I don't want to do this. The 3 percent fee won't cover the expenses and I don't want to be a collection agency. Tax collection is different, it keeps the whole township running."

McCreery views it as part of her job as an elected public servant.

"To say it's too much work is not an excuse," she said. "The bottom line is they asked us to do something for them... I think they had a legitimate request."

While there is a significant amount of work establishing the S.A.D.— creating a resolution, taking it to the board, getting numbers of all properties, sending out letters to all property owners, having a public hearing, etc.—those tasks do not recur. The recurring work is adding to the taxes each year. A $300 processing fee is charged to S.A.D. applicants, and residents in the S.A.D. also pay an administrative fee of 3 percent, she said.

Residents in the S.A.D. still decide who is providing the road maintenance. They provide the township with an invoice and the township pays the bill out of the S.A.D. account.

"All we would do is collect the money and then pay the bill," said McCreery. "The benefit is everyone has to pay that way; otherwise, it's the same people paying and the same people not paying."

Beltramo said he made an incorrect statement during the meeting when he said that residents in the S.A.D. could still choose not to pay. There is a possibility that they could not pay, he said, but they would have to be approved by the Michigan Tax Tribunal. If they appealed the tax and were denied, they would still have to pay. Anyone who did not pay would have a tax lien against their property.

Ed Darbyshire owns vacant land on LeGault and is opposed to the road becoming an S.A.D. because he wants it to become a county road.

"That would mean the taxes I pay on my property would be deductible off my income tax," he said. "I want the taxes I pay on my property to go for road services."

Darbyshire notes numerous problems on LeGault including frontage, ingress and egress, and easement issues, and said the only solution is to make it a county road.

Craig Bryson, public information officer for the Road Commission for Oakland County, said if the residents of LeGault want to become a public, county road, where the RCOC performs the maintenance, the road first needs to be brought up to county standards. This would mean LeGault would have to become paved to RCOC specifications, with appropriate drainage, a surface with the proper type and depth of materials, and detailed construction specifications. The cost to bring it to county standards is generally around $125,000 per mile of road, paid for by the residents and approved by inspectors before the county will even consider accepting the road, which is not guaranteed, although Bryson said if it was paved to standards, it stands a good chance.

"When you buy a home, you need to consider where it is located," said Bryson. "Sometimes homes on private roads are less expensive because they don't come with the public service you get on a public street... It's cheaper for developers because they don't have to build the road to our standards. In the long term, it's a burden for the residents of those roads."

Thurman said LeGault will be brought back for discussion at the next township meeting, planned for 7:30 p.m., Nov. 1, at the township offices, 395 Mill St.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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