Who should be responsible for common areas? [Editorial]

Folded into the seemingly endless stack of papers people sign when the by houses in modern times, at least houses in residential developments, are seemingly innocuous commitments to participate in homeowners associations.

Generally, homeowners and the associations have relatively little contact. The associations send dues bills or dues bill booklets to the houses or townhouses in their neighborhoods, and most people pay their dues — monthly, quarterly or annually — without giving it a second thought.

From time to time, however, homeowners associations draw the attention of a large segment of the neighborhoods they serve, generally when dues are increased, when the managers of the association become sticklers on allowing people to make changes to their homes or, as in the case with Roland Place in Bel Air, when the association ends up being hit with a substantial bill.

Last week, it came to light that the 31 homeowners in Roland Place could end up having to pay a bill totaling $60,000 to cover the cost of repairing the community's storm water management pond. That comes to about $1,935 per household.

A little background on homeowners associations, often referred to by their acronym HOAs, is in order. After the concept of what was once known as tract housing was put into practice on a large scale in this country in the baby boom years after World War II, it became clear that these new fairly densely populated areas would have small scale common infrastructure that would need to be kept in good repair.

The local governments that typically would be responsible for public infrastructure were reluctant to spend money to do things like cut the grass or repair sidewalks in these new developments' common areas.

But someone still has to cut that grass and fix the sidewalks.

Years later, it became clear that new planned developments, the term that came to replace "tract housing," generated a fair amount of stormwater runoff that could result in flooding of small streams, so another element of common area was added as new neighborhoods were built: Stormwater retention ponds and related structures.

And finally, new government-like entity was devised to pay for the maintenance of a neighborhood's common areas: The homeowners association.

HOAs charge dues (a misleading term because unlike club dues, it is not possible to quit a HOA to opt out of paying), and the money for dues is used, at least in theory, to cover the cost of cutting grass in common areas, keep stormwater ponds in working order to prevent flooding, and repair sidewalks as needed.

The HOAs are managed by a board of directors that consists of people in the community who are voted into office by their fellow property owners, one vote per household. So far, so good. A democratically elected board of community members manages what amount to taxes levied on the properties in the community.

In practice, however, things tend to fall apart. Participation in HOA elections is spotty. Some HOAs fall into a state of torpor, leaving the management of public areas to one of a few management companies that specialize in collecting dues and managing the common area maintenance.

In the case of Roland Place, the status of the homeowners association is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the stormwater management pond has become overgrown and functions more as a briar patch than a flood and pollution prevention structure. The Bel Air town government estimates the cost of fixing the problem at $60,000, a cost that is expected to be passed along to the residents of the community, regardless of the status of the HOA.

Such issues crop up from time to time, and similar problems are likely to come to light more frequently in the coming years for three major reasons:

• Generally, though not always, the dues set by homeowners associations when they were set up by the developers are unrealistically low relative to the costs a neighborhood can expect to end up dealing with. There's sufficient money for cutting grass and hiring a management company, but generally no provision is made for making repairs in the out years to things like stormwater ponds.

• For many neighborhoods in Harford County, the out years have arrived. At a little more than two decades old, Roland Place, for example, has reached an age where certain infrastructure is starting to need work done. Many other communities in Harford County are of a similar age and are likely to face problems like the one facing Roland Place.

• Stormwater management ponds are likely in the next few years to take on a higher profile for the same reason Harford County and other Maryland counties were oblige to enact a so-called "rain tax." The ponds are integral to filtering nutrient pollution from rainwater before it gets into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Controlling nutrient pollution was the impetus behind the "rain tax" being levied, and inspection of storm water management ponds by the county and the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace is likely to increase. More inspections mean it's likely more problems will be found, and these problems will cost money to fix.

Getting a handle on the problem is a complex task in and of itself. Figuring out a solution is likely to be that much more complicated.

It does seem clear, however, that the county and municipal governments bear a substantial amount of the institutional responsibility for the problem. Though the idea of requiring neighborhoods to pay for the upkeep of their own public areas may have been a reasonable one, it hasn't worked very well. Typically, governments need to be responsible for common properties and, while HOAs have a quasi-government quality about them, not all of them are as vigilant as they should be about maintaining common areas.

The time may have come in Harford County to re-evaluate the role of home owners associations and figure out if there is a better, more efficient, way for the community at large to deal with the maintenance of common areas in neighborhoods, be they stormwater management ponds, community playgrounds, sidewalks or common green areas.

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