In the grand scheme of things, it's not the kind of issue most people regard as a political hot potato, but it is a matter that's likely to end up sporadically adding to property tax bills in neighborhoods across Harford County in the coming years.
It's not police protection, schools, firehouses, parks or libraries. The sleeper issue with the big price tag is storm water management.
Homeowners in the Bel Air neighborhood of Major's Choice are finding out just how costly the issue can be; the board of town commissioners voted this week on a financial package that would cover an estimated $76,000 cost of repairing three storm water management ponds in the community. The town essentially is financing the repairs and the affected homeowners will pay for the work — plus an annual fee — over two or three years, depending on which pond the property feeds. The measures approved would cost $155 over three years or $166 over two years per home per year, plus another $30 a year in administrative fees.
The town may have a patina of heroism for coming to the rescue of a homeowners association in this matter, but the sad reality is the problem is one the town was a party to creating roughly 30 years ago when Major's Choice was farmland to the east of Bel Air under consideration for development.
The town followed a development model that is common across Harford County and Maryland. The developer set up a homeowners association that would become responsible for maintaining common areas in the neighborhood, even as common areas (parks and public rights of way) are the town's responsibility in older areas. Among the key common areas the homeowners association at Major's Choice (or any other neighborhood built in the last 30 to 40 years) would be the storm water management ponds.
Such ponds serve two functions: they allow water to have a place to gather before draining slowly after a heavy rain so as to prevent urban runoff flash flooding, and, key in Maryland especially, they help water from sudden downpours more slowly find its way into the Chesapeake Bay, thus cutting down on the nutrient pollution associated with sudden slugs of urban and suburban runoff entering the bay.
In recent decades, the ponds have become mandatory features of most large developments, and in residential neighborhoods, their upkeep has been written into the deeds of new homes in such a way that homeowners associations are legally obliged to maintain the ponds.
The catch, however, is the developers set the original homeowners association fees, and historically have set those fees very low — with the blessing of the towns and counties which sign off on the associations when they OK development plans.
As developers turn over homeowners associations to the homeowners themselves, the HOA fees generally don't reflect what will be needed to pay for long-term costs such as storm water pond maintenance. The problem goes double or triple for neighborhoods with blue street signs. In these neighborhoods, the homeowners associations are responsible for street maintenance. And the reason is generally that the streets were allowed to be built without meeting county or town standards.
Years later, when costly problems crop up, like the need to make some repairs to a pond or repave a quasi-public street, the developers have long since moved on, the town or county is managed by a new group of elected and administrative staff, but a fair number of the original homeowners remain. And they get stuck with the bill.
Such problems can be expected to play out with increasing frequency across Harford County in the years to come as a large number of communities established in the 1980s and later begin to show signs of age. It's an unfortunate and costly problem that should have been, and probably was, evident way back when.
It's also the kind of mistake that's likely to be repeated, because the people who benefited from delaying paying aren't the ones paying now.