Private roads can be a trap for the unwary

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 4, 2009

A new resident goes shopping for a place to live, finds what appears to be a comfortable home for sale or rent on a county road, paved or gravel, that appears to be in good shape. The paperwork is completed and the new resident moves in. Over the weeks or months the road deteriorates. The resident’s calls to public officials meet with the response, “There’s nothing we can do.”

Private roads can be a trap for the unwary and there’s no way to escape that other than for people to be more informed about how this all works.

Last week was an instructional week, with about 120 residents “of Stillwater Drive, Bluecreek Drive, Impala Drive, Buford Drive, Hackberry Drive and Red Oak Drive off U.S. 61 South receiving official notices from the U.S. Postal Service that the roads leading to their homes were in such poor condition that the contract carrier would no longer be making deliveries.

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Turns out, the person responsible for maintenance, identified by the U.S. Postal Service as developer Pete Buford, smoothed out the surface — but the underlying debacle continues and there are some private roads “serving” homes in Warren County whose owners are dead, bankrupt or can’t be found.

No one has broken any law. Developers, who must now submit road specification and drainage plans to the Warren County Board of Supervisors in advance, make only a promise to complete infrastructure when they sell or rent lots to residential or commercial builders. Promises, too often, are broken.

What’s under way is a transition. In the past, supervisors were known to accept for public maintenance half-built roads and then shift costs that should have been borne by developers to taxpayers. That’s no longer happening, which is a good thing.

But what results when developers don’t follow through can quickly become a nightmare for residents. This is an area where there could be legislation requiring developers to post performance bonds along with their plans, for instance. In the event of default, the bond would have to be sufficient to pay the costs of meeting standards.

But for now, there probably aren’t enough “victims” to raise sufficient alarm to have such a law enacted.

So people just have to be aware. “Is this a public road?” is not a question real estate customers often ask, but they should.