A proposal to use public funds to improve a private subdivision drew mixed reactions from the Mobile City Council last week. But while some saw a template for addressing problems in their own districts, others were concerned the improvements could open a costly can of worms for the city.
The proposal in question pertains to the Summer Place subdivision. Located in Council President Gina Gregory’s district, Summer Place was built 34 years ago and — like many older subdivisions — some of its common areas have been neglected.
On July 18, Gregory sought approval from her colleagues to use $50,000 from her district’s capital improvement funds to mitigate continued erosion of a detention pond that was formerly maintained by the Summer Place homeowners association.
Gregory said the pond, which has filled with appliances, trash and debris over the years, is now encroaching on at least two homes in the subdivision. The trouble is, the land where the pond is located is owned by the property owner’s association, which has been inactive for years.
Now, officials believe nothing is going to get done unless the city steps in.
“Since I’ve been on this council, we have told these people, ‘it is not our responsibility, it is yours. You’re going to have to deal with it,’” Gregory said. “The problem is, some of the folks in these neighborhoods don’t have the money that it’s going to take to fix these problems.”
After working with residents for more than a year, Gregory and Council Attorney Jim Rossler said they were able to come up with a legal strategy allowing the city to put up public money to assist the neighborhood, even though the pond is technically on private property.
According to Rossler, the plan entailed reconstituting the homeowners association, electing new officers and then having the association sign a one-time agreement with the city approving the work on the pond and splitting the cost between all of the owners.
With about 100 parcels in the subdivision, that equates to roughly $500 per residence. However, the money would not be paid upfront; instead, it would be assessed to the value of the home and be owed to the city if and when the owners move to sell their property.
“[This agreement] plainly states that the city, using CIP money Mrs. Gregory has devoted to the project, will do this on a one-time basis,” Rossler said. “The common-area maintenance agreement says that henceforth, no matter what happens to that detention pond, they’re responsible.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich was quick to applaud Gregory’s efforts to address an infrastructure problem on private property, adding that similar situations involving “quasi or non-active homeowners associations” are a “huge issue” for subdivisions in West Mobile.
Rich noted that the council had used similar property assessments in the Pinehurst subdivision and had few issues collecting those funds from residents. In all, she touted Gregory’s use of assessments as a “huge option that we’ve not explored to help neighborhoods.”
“It may take a lot of meetings and lot of energy and working with residents, but at the end of the day, if the need is to improve private property, there is a tool in place,” Rich added.
However, not everyone shared Rich’s zeal for the proposal, especially Councilman Joel Daves, who suggested there are far more infrastructure concerns on private property than the city could possibly take on. Though he said he understood the gravity of the situation in Summer Place, Daves said it’s “a slippery slope” when public money is used to improve private property.
“Throughout this city we’ve got not just detention ponds, but ditches, low spots and all kinds of places where water collects that the city has no legal responsibility to remedy. So once we go down this path and we say to these folks, ‘We’re going to solve this problem for you,’ we’ve got to help everybody out there do the same thing,” Daves said. “[We’re] struggling now to clean the ditches and low-lying spots that the city does have a legal responsibility to maintain.”
Daves went so far as to call Gregory’s proposal as “a freebie” for Summer Place, a term Rich objected to because of the assessment owners would need to agree to in order to move the project forward. However, Daves said it could be decades before the city recoups that money.
While he was quick to express support for the proposal itself, Councilman Levon Manzie seemed to take issue with the effort that went into finding a legal way to spend money on private property. Manzie said he’d been looking for a similar solution in his district to no avail.
“If we’ve got to go through the proper channels, I don’t mind, but for years I’ve been hearing because it was private property we couldn’t do anything. This makes the second time that something has been on private property, yet we’ve somehow found a way,” Manzie said. “I’m in support of this, but I want you to put the same energy and same attention to bringing something swiftly to this council that will take care of Oak Lawn Cemetery because everything [Gregory] said about this detention pond — every single word — is applicable to what’s going on in Toulminville.”
This week, the council agreed to delay a decision on the proposal until Aug. 9, though no matter how it moves forward, the residents of Summer Place who have been involved in addressing the issue see the city as their only option. Nathan Humphrey, president of the reconstituted property owners association, said they’ve spent the past few months looking for a solution, not “a freebie.”
“This is the only way we’ll be able to deal with this situation at all because of the expense involved. We manually took care of one of the other detention ponds, but this is by far the worst, in part because of how deep the thing is,” Humphrey told Lagniappe. “We had no idea it would get some of the pushback it has gotten.”